Editor’s note: Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelancer who writes the Gather column for The Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine. She tested positive for COVID-19 early this month. Here is her story.
It all started on Feb. 26, with a fever. One thing I want people to know about COVID-19 is that for some who get it, including me, a fever is a first sign. (For others, a first sign may be something different.) For me, it wasn’t the one-day fever I typically get with the common cold, but a fever that continued, off and on, for five days. Which was weird for a generally healthy 40-something adult human.
My body was giving me a definite “What the—?” vibe. This illness felt … different. Novel, you might say.
I’m pretty sure when and where I picked up the virus — from a small gathering attended by my husband and several of my friends, a few of whom got sick too. But no one knows who dropped it off. No one from the gathering was coughing or sneezing.
Nobody knew the coronavirus had started to spread through the community.
My friends and I stayed in touch via our phones and computers. We were staying home and isolating ourselves because we knew we had something icky that we didn’t want to pass along. But we didn’t have any breathing problems. And didn’t COVID-19 always come with respiratory issues?
The fever subsided, but the crud hung on. I developed sinus congestion and headaches and eventually nausea. A pervasive brain fog kept me from working. My husband and I felt a lot better lying down than doing anything else, so we watched a lot of Netflix. I spent too much time on social media, where everyone was obsessed with the coronavirus. Our two cats were over the moon: Humans staying home and lying around doing nothing for days on end? Best life! My main emotion, aside from bewilderment about this strange illness, was frustration over not knowing for sure what it was.
I was intrigued to read that the Seattle Flu Study (SFS), a donor-funded research project based at the University of Washington, was starting to test for COVID-19. If my friends and I didn’t have the flu, what did we have? We sent samples in.
A few days later, one of my friends got a call from Public Health – Seattle & King County: she had tested positive for COVID-19. A few more of us tried to get tested via our doctors but were told that only high-risk people were being tested; there just weren’t enough tests available for everyone. I was reading World Health Organization reports and communicating furiously behind the scenes with people I know who work in public health, learning everything I could about transmission, symptoms and recommendations.
More friends’ tests came back positive. So I wasn’t surprised when I got the news that my Seattle Flu Study swab had, too.
Aside from talking to my family and the people I’d come into contact with recently (fortunately, it was a small number), I didn’t tell anyone about my test results for a while. I was focused on getting completely well and getting my life back on track.
But then I read federal agencies may have temporarily shut down the Seattle Flu Study’s coronavirus testing because the SFS had gone beyond its purview as a flu research study in contacting people who had tested positive for coronavirus.
If the SFS hadn’t told me what I had, it’s likely I would never have known. I was furious — This is an emergency! How could you not want all hands on deck? How could anyone think we might not want to know our results, whatever they were? — furious enough to tell my story more widely.
The more people I told, the more people told me they thought my experience could help to alleviate fear and encourage others. So here I am.
Here’s what I want people to know:
You will most likely be fine if you get this. We’re all hearing a lot about what it’s like to have the worst version of COVID-19, which is one reason I want folks to know what it was like for me. My friends and I are recovered, or almost there. None of us had to be hospitalized. The kids I know who’ve been exposed have emerged without a scratch; that jibes with findings from around the world.
We all need to look out for those who will not be fine. Testing personnel and materials are scarce, and resources are rightfully going to help those who most need them. Which means that yes, untested, untreated people are walking around with this virus. One of them gave it to someone I know, who gave it to me. But rather than looking around at your fellow humans and wondering if they’re going to give you coronavirus, think about whether you might be the one giving it to them. Try not to be that person. If you’re sick, stay home. If you’re not sick, know that you might still transmit it, so wash those hands, wipe those surfaces and stay out of spitting distance of other people!
The feds aren’t going to save us. With federal agencies decimated and disorganized, we’ve learned, sadly, that we can’t wait for someone at the top to tell us what to do. I’m glad the Seattle Flu Study folks didn’t wait. The lack of national coordination is reason for deep disappointment, but it’s not a reason for despair. Instead, I hope this realization strengthens our resolve to do what we have to do.
We are going to save each other. Did you ever wonder how you would have acted if you had been caught up in one of those difficult times in history — the American Revolution, the flu of 1918? Do you hope you would have been one of the brave, helpful ones? Here’s your chance.
I love that folks are starting to think about how they can assist vulnerable people of all kinds, whether that be an elderly neighbor or a struggling small business. I’ve been buying gift certificates to use after this is all over and donating to help artists. We all need to pressure elected officials, right now, to implement policies that will help those most affected. We all need to help health care workers do their jobs by doing ours — and right now, our job is to keep each other healthy.
As for me, I’m wondering what I should do next (once I’m out of quarantine, that is). I’m hoping to hear good news from research into whether having had the virus gives us immunity going forward. If it does give me immunity, I hope to use that superpower for good.
So please, think about what you can do to help. This does not mean hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and it certainly doesn’t mean buying up all the masks (leave medical supplies for medical folks, please!). Don’t even get me started on bottled water.
Instead, practice good hygiene and social distancing. When an event is canceled, think about how you can help the organizers cope with lost revenue. Check in on your neighbors and see what they need, even if that’s just a conversation from the other side of the porch.
This is our once-in-a-lifetime challenge. Let’s rise to it.