Joyce Smith, who stocks the shelves at a BJ’s Wholesale outlet in Virginia, ignored a Jan. 20 text from management that store employees qualified as essential workers and could register for the coronavirus vaccine.
After working for nearly a year without getting sick, Smith was more afraid of the vaccine’s potential side effects than the virus. Two weeks later, her temperature rose to 103, her head pounded, and she tested positive.
” ‘Oh my God, am I going to make it to 60?’ ” Smith, 59, recalled asking herself as she lay in bed, gasping for air. She also feared she had infected her husband, who had just been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack.
From its beginning, the coronavirus has been a terrifying game of chance, requiring moment-to-moment calculations about whether the most mundane decision — entering an elevator, perhaps, or using a public restroom — is worth risking one’s life.
For those infected in recent weeks, as vaccinations were becoming available and experts began talking of an impending return to normalcy, the bad timing is the pandemic’s latest cruel twist.
“It’s kind of like running the race and getting to the last 15 yards and tripping and falling,” said Bill Moore, 68, a guitarist and government contractor who tested positive for the virus in early March.
“I’m just irritated,” he said as he recovered at his home in Bowie, Md. “Everyone likes to win.”
All along, the virus has induced in the newly sick a desire to pinpoint where and when their good fortune may have vanished — an exercise all the more frustrating now, with the pandemic’s end apparently in sight.
After registering for the vaccine, John Carlos Green, a Washington, D.C., resident, tested positive in late January. He immediately thought through all his recent movements. Did it happen while he shopped at the supermarket? Or when he jogged around the high school track? Or touched the doorknob to the entrance of his apartment building?
“At a certain point, it’s futile to try and figure it out,” said Green, 42, who worked until recently for the attorney general’s office in Washington. “It can happen to anyone — anywhere and anytime.”
Angie De Groot, 38, a research analyst who lives in Washington with her husband and two children, considered herself so careful that it did not occur to her she could have the virus when she came down with a headache and felt nauseous in mid-February.
She and her husband, David, had worked from home since last March. They avoided supermarkets and restaurants. Everyone wore masks when they went for a walk. Only one other family member had been allowed inside their row house.
A couple of days later, unable to taste or smell the pizza she had ordered, Angie De Groot called her primary-care clinic and listed her symptoms.
“Well, you have COVID,” the nurse said.
“Really?” De Groot replied.
After a test confirmed the diagnosis, she retreated to her bedroom for 13 days, sad and worried she would not regain her sense of smell and taste. While she knows she is better off than many others, De Groot is also angry that she had somehow become infected after strictly heeding governmental directives.
“I almost made it,” she said. “Even though I know anyone can get it, it doesn’t feel quite fair.”
Tynisha Dennis has felt the virus’ lethal threat since the pandemic began. She lives in Prince George’s County, a majority-Black suburb that has tallied Maryland’s most coronavirus cases and its second-highest number of deaths.
An R&B singer whose stage name is “Summer,” Dennis said she knows more than two dozen people who died of COVID-19 during the early months — friends, parents of friends, music promoters and musicians “who were dropping like flies.”
“It was like one long funeral,” said Dennis, 34, who also works as a business analyst. “It was death after death after death.”
Even before the shutdown a year ago, when the virus was mostly a threat elsewhere, she took precautions, wearing a mask when she flew to Cancún, Mexico, for a vacation in February. When she returned, she bought a supply of K95 masks and plastic shields, ordered her groceries through Instacart, became vigilant about social distancing and turned down invitations to join jam sessions and perform at private parties.
At the same time, Dennis was willing to take calculated risks, like going to restaurants when they were empty and leaving if a crowd showed up.
One routine she kept was playing with her group, Summer Dennis and Rhymes, in which Moore is the guitarist. Just before the pandemic, Dennis said, their music had started to get attention online. They wanted to maintain momentum.
“Me and Bill were like, ‘We can’t stop now,’ ” she said. “We felt the art was so important — it was one thing that kept us wanting to live. You feel things so deeply — not being able to get onstage and get this off my chest is very hard.”
Early this month, the group convened at Dennis’ house in Cheverly, Md., to make a music video, even though Moore had been fighting a cough for several days. Over 90 minutes, they recorded four songs. Because she was singing, Dennis did not wear a mask.
Within days, Dennis, her keyboard player, and Moore and his wife had all tested positive for the virus. A friend who attended a photo shoot at Dennis’ house the day before also got COVID-19.
“It just ran through all of us,” Dennis said.
While he was sick, Moore managed to get through to CVS to make an appointment for the vaccine, only to learn that he would not qualify until 14 days after he emerged from isolation.
“I’m still alive and I’m not on a [ventilator],” he said of the delay. “I’m not complaining.”
Dennis, who is diabetic, struggled to breathe during the early phases of her illness and felt as if her nerves were exposed. At one point, her pulse oximeter showed her oxygen level had dropped to 87, well below normal.
“I feel like I was in a bar fight, taking punches to the body,” she said. “I keep looking for bruises on my skin because I’m in such pain.”
When she thinks about the timing of her illness, she said, she is infuriated that government leaders did not ensure that “the vaccine would have reached us sooner, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to catch it.”
But she sees a consolation in becoming infected at a point “when we’re more socialized not to give this as much angst as before.”
“A year ago,” she said, “I would’ve probably run into traffic, I was so scared.”
After the country shut down last March, Joyce Smith kept going to her job in the receiving department at BJ’s Wholesale Club. Her husband, James “Pat” Smith, 55, a distribution manager for Red Bull, did the same.
Their envy of those who could “work from home” — that newly ubiquitous phrase of pandemic life — was eclipsed by pride at being part of an army of essential workers who keep the country functioning.
Joyce, who has worked at BJ’s Wholesale for nearly 30 years, cried when hordes of frightened, angry shoppers stripped the shelves bare. She felt as if “my home was being torn apart.”
But she kept working her shift from 4 a.m. to noon, setting aside packs of toilet paper that she handed to elderly shoppers she spotted in the crowd. “I’m still out there,” she wrote over a photo of herself at work on March 28, 2020, that she posted on Facebook.
The Smiths, who live in Woodbridge, Va., don’t agree on everything. He supports former President Donald Trump. She has a tattoo of former President Barack Obama’s campaign logo on her wrist. But they both remained unafraid of the coronavirus, even as their co-workers got sick.
“We thought we were like Teflon,” said Pat, a chronic smoker who shared his wife’s mistrust of the vaccine. “Maybe we’re just stupid that way. It just didn’t seem like that big a deal to get the virus.”
On the morning of Feb. 7, Super Bowl Sunday, he awoke feeling pain in his arm and chest. His wife took him to the emergency room, where they learned that he’d had a heart attack and needed a stent.
While he stayed at the hospital, Joyce went home, where she suddenly felt chills and a fever that kept rising.
As she struggled to breathe, she thought about her mother, who died of a brain aneurysm when Smith was 12. She feared that she would die and leave her own grown daughter, Tess, a public-school teacher, in grief.
“I didn’t want her to be so sad,” Joyce said.
She also thought about the text she had ignored from her employer about signing up for the vaccine.
What if she had infected her husband? For the first time, she began to regret not registering for the shot.
Pat’s coronavirus test turned up negative. He came home from the hospital a couple of days later.
When Joyce recovered, she registered both of them to be vaccinated and told her co-workers they should sign up, too.
Returning to BJ’s, she learned that a beloved maintenance man — a man in his 40s who scrubbed the floors every night — had become infected and was on a ventilator.
All at once, she began questioning the purpose of her work.
How essential was it?
“Is it worth it if it takes a life?” she said. “How would my daughter feel if I had died? Would she feel like it was worth it?”