Around the Island

Charity’s column: A positive test, a teachable moment

At 8:12 one morning in late July, I received a surprising voicemail: “Your COVID swab came out positive. If you are not feeling well, feel free to take some Ibuprofen Tylenol. The most important thing right now is to isolate yourself and tell everyone you have been in contact with. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to call back. Have a great day.”

I did have some questions and concerns.

But first I called my husband. He was in the living room, and I was on the porch, so the conversation was a little strained.

“Are you calling from the porch?”

“Yes. I tested positive for COVID.”

“Are you sure?”

“I just got a message.”

“Did you call them?”

“Not yet. Don’t come out here, I could be contagious.”

Before I could call the urgent care office where I’d been tested, I got a call from the Senior Center. Sara Mundy was wondering if I could make a Post Office run for someone who couldn’t go out. When I explained why I couldn’t, she offered to find a volunteer to get me some groceries, and reminded me to call the Shelter Island Police Department to let them know I’d tested positive.

Since my husband and I both felt fine, he drove to New York City to get tested and to quarantine, leaving me the pulse-oximeter, the thermometer, and the dog, true signs of his devotion. In the week that followed, my daily regimen became: check oxygen, take temperature, scratch dog. Then I’d rest for a few minutes, and repeat the cycle.

Although I had no symptoms, I began to imagine that a bit of pollen lodged in my throat was actually a spiky coronavirus trying to get purchase on my mucous membranes in order to wreak havoc. I gargled with salt water several times a day, and checked my oxygen level compulsively.

I called every single person I spent more than 10 minutes with in the past two weeks. I was that friend, the one you just had a socially-distanced, outdoor dinner with, who never so much as cleared her throat, but who was apparently breathing deadly virus on you like a Komodo dragon after a heavy meal.

A friend in New York started checking in every day to make sure I had no symptoms. Both of her brothers had been hospitalized with the virus in April and one of them was still not well enough to go back to work. Another friend had a cousin who got sick in the early days of the pandemic and was just now getting back to her life.

The unfortunate people on my contact list texted me from time to time on the progress of their tests. It was a huge relief when my my sons and my daughter-in-law were cleared first — one in a few hours, and the other a few days after they were tested. Infecting your children with a deadly virus is not something a mother wants to contemplate. My husband was cleared quickly as well, and I began to think we would all be O.K.

A volunteer generously agreed to check my mailbox, and ended up dragging a box containing a 6- foot-long, 40-pound tent into his compact car and onto my porch. Another dropped off groceries by the front door. I thanked them both by moving to the other end of the house. An angel from Sylvester Manor Farm dropped off my weekly CSA share. Never have I been so glad to see way too many cucumbers.

One by one, friends and family called and texted as they got the results of their tests, all negative. The last was the friend who had the bad luck to eat dinner with me 24 hours before I was tested (outdoors, with masks) and who had cancelled her social life and quarantined from her husband until she finally found out she was negative 10 days later.

Several friends said I was the last person they expected to get it, given how readily I chided them for handshaking or letting their mask slip over their nose. Others asked me why I had gotten tested in the first place, and I realized I didn’t have a good answer. 

Curiosity?

During the regular Wednesday night family Zoom meeting, my mother joked that I must have made it all up to get attention. My son’s employer asked to see my lab report, since my son decided to work from home until he tested negative, to prevent infecting his co-workers.

I can highly recommend Dr. Josh Potter’s parking lot coronavirus-testing operation at the Medical Center on South Ferry Road. Every Wednesday since the middle of July, he greets patients from a tent in his office parking lot, across the way from a deep, wooded section of the Mashomack preserve, an examination room so beautifully situated that nothing bad could ever happen to you there. Truly, the man has a way with a nasal swab. 

What a relief when he told me two days later that the results were negative. I asked if he thought my first test was wrong, and he said it might have detected genetic fragments from an old infection or a brief exposure — not enough virus to make me sick or contagious, but enough to show up on a sensitive test. Fourteen days after testing positive, I had tested negative twice and quarantine was over.

The other day in the IGA I noticed the shopper between me and the mozzarella did not have a mask. Like a coward, I backed up slowly and went down the nearby frozen food aisle. I wish I had been able to summon the words to ask her with tolerance and understanding to put on a mask, but I did not. I believe now, more than ever, that it’s not what you do that keeps you safe when coronavirus is in the air, but what other people do.

Since there is still a lot we don’t know about the virus, it’s important to pay attention to what we do know. I believe that I didn’t get sick, or make anyone else sick, because I wear a mask, try to be outdoors as much as possible, and stay away from people. I think the virus got close to me — close enough to register on a PCR test, but not enough to cause anything more than inconvenience and consternation for me and the people I came in contact with. 

Unlike most COVID-19 stories, this one has a happy ending. I feel good, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t give it to anyone. And instead of feeling put-upon when I wear a mask, I now feel as righteous as someone who has given a pint of blood.

What we do together will save us.