Covid close contact can become a full-time job.
Weeks ago, when I first read the news about the new variant, the string of letters looked like one of those LDAP or IMAP codes you need in order to successfully configure email accounts. B.1.1.529. They had not yet named it Omicron. It was November 26, Thanksgiving weekend, and I was reading The New York Times in bed on my phone. I felt a hollow pit in my stomach. Here we go again, I said to myself. I tend to keep these thoughts to myself because
a. They’re not popular.
b. People have been casting the pandemic response in terms of optimism versus pessimism, a dichotomy to which I refuse to subscribe.
c. I am not by nature a pessimist, by any stretch, but consider myself a realistic optimist.
Business continued as usual in Italy at the end of November and into the first week of December. It’s been the law here that we must wear masks indoors, and are urged to put them on outside if we cannot maintain safe social distancing. The kids went to school. Jason and I continued to go to work and watch the news. On December 6, I got a massage, my first one since before pandemic times, at Sala Thai in the Oltrarno. It was bliss. Normal times hello! On December 14, I joined a couple of colleagues for a farewell and happy holidays aperitivo in centro. I walked through the winter drizzle and bought gifts, writing cards out in the store for the quick turnaround. The Christmas lights twinkled through the rain on Via Tornabuoni. We showed our green passes; we were all fully vaccinated. The bar had a terrazza, one of these very enclosed, very heated terrazze. We had a couple of rounds of drinks, took pictures, laughed and talked. The terrazza was full of other people, eating, drinking, chatting. It felt very normal. I went home and went to sleep.
The following morning I was getting ready to take the kids to school when I received a notification from one of the two colleagues that he had been in recent close contact with a Covid-positive person. Messages flew back and forth.
I took the kids in and went to my regular pharmacy on the Corso to get tested. I stood in line with a small collection of disgruntled Italians and stressed travelers. The result was negative. Back at home another message arrived – the other colleague had tested positive twice, then negative. Further information came in. I was concerned for my family, so readied our guest room and relocated myself there. The room was a mess, used mostly for storage and for staging items to give away. I put a few new towels in the guest bathroom. I made the twin beds, put some plants on the sill, moved my laptop to the desk, and settled in. Where would these days bring me? I had absolutely no idea.
It felt many ways like being back in the hard lockdown again. I wasn’t going outside except for absolute needs, like picking the kids up from school. Our regular help asked us if she could have days off until I tested negative. Jason took over 95% of parenting. It was strange to hear their voices down the hall and up the stairs. My twin bed with its five blankets felt like a flashback to study abroad in Spain or France, but this time with a dystopian pandemic flair. My children waved at me from the living room window across the cortile. It was hard to believe how quickly I found myself once more in a situation of limited freedom. The news from my colleagues caused further concern. The old anxiety nibbled away at the edge of my mind, morning, noon, and night.
Thursday I went to Jason’s office and slipped into a free test line with his staff. Negative. Friday at the pharmacy, negative. By this time I was on a first-name basis with everyone at the pharmacy and had made and cancelled two PCR test appointments. Saturday I returned to the pharmacy that had tested me on Friday, but they said they would not test me again because my Green Pass was valid for 48 hours, and I was still in that window. I was irritated and bought a bottle of multivitamins. The drama at the pharmacy was pretty rich and excellent fodder for a fiction writer. All sorts of people were frustrated and confused and in a hurry and annoyed. So later on that Saturday Jason did a home test on me that he nicked from his work. Negative. I had my booster on Monday morning and hoped I would make the appointment. I finally managed to make a PCR appointment for Tuesday morning at a lab I felt I could find on my bike.
Amidst all these little milestones I struggled with the false sense of security I’d felt that night at the bar terrazza. I was fully vaccinated and on the threshold of my third dose. Why had I done it? Out of a genuine bonhomie, but was it worth it? I felt horrible I had risked my family’s health, and the health of those with whom I came into intermittent contact. I took all my meals in my room, bringing a tray back to the little bed, leaving it outside the door when I was done, like hotel room service. I kept my time in the apartment at large down to an absolute minimum and wore double masks the whole time every time. One day I stepped into the guest shower double-masked: I laughed at myself. So it’s come to this. How quickly we find ourselves back on Square one. The bottles and jars of cosmetics collected on the desk. Every morning I folded every blanket and piece of clothing in that room in an attempt to maintain external order and internal calm. The seedling on my sill that remained alive in stunted format for months finally curled its leaves and died. The space heater worked wonders in that small space but it probably killed the seedling. I remembered once more how much I loved the view from the tall casement windows, straight up the wall onto the rooftop rose garden of the palazzo owners. There was a world carrying on outside my walls, but I had pressed pause.
I binged The Great on Hulu and messaged people to check in. I had a long chat with my parents on the weekend before my booster. I lost sense of time. It all started to feel sneakily much like spring 2020. I wrote in my journal like I was 22 again. I was glad that a trip planned for the first week of January to Strasbourg was cancelled.
On Sunday, December 19 I went back to the pharmacy on the Corso. Oh, hey, Monica, get in line. They smiled at me. Negative. This was good news – I figured if I was negative after five days, I was a good bet to stay negative. Jason and I talked about the new strain, and how, based on the timing of my exposure, the positive tests were almost certainly delta and not omicron, hence less likely to form a breakthrough infection after vaccination.
Monday, December 20, my booster shot was still on, since I’d tested negative five days in a row after the fateful apero. Jason and I got stuck in traffic before he finally dropped me off at the hospital vaccination hub. All I had was my confirmation number on my phone. It wasn’t clear where to go and I walked three times past the same homeless man before I wriggled my way to some signage pointing the way. I arrived at the line, which easily numbered one hundred people. I stepped into line in the back and noted with some anxiety that everyone seemed to have a sheaf of documents. I stood there stupidly in the cold with my phone. After I turned the corner in the line, I struck up a conversation with the woman behind me. You didn’t see the PRINT THIS button after you made your reservation? No, I replied. Don’t worry – it looks like half the people here didn’t either. She smiled at me. After about an hour of waiting I finally reached the hall and was directed to a desk to complete my paperwork.
I had to pass an in-depth doctor interview before they would administer the shot. This was the case for everyone. In brief: Barbados?! Recent steroids!? Amoxycillin and penicillin allergy?! Recent close contact with covid positive person? Testing negative yesterday?? Go on and get your shot, lady. I also received a somewhat scolding lecture about always disclosing my known medical allergies. I tried to make the point that was why I clearly listed them on the disclosure sheet. I got my shot and took the tram back into town floating on a short-lived cloud of relief. An older Italian woman was talking loudly on her cellphone inside the tram with her mask under her chin. I felt like screaming. I had become unsocialized. Maybe more easily frustrated. But who wouldn’t be, after Wednesday through Monday in the guest room, hearing life continue on the other side of the door?
Tuesday was the winter solstice, a morning full of glittering sunshine. After I dropped Eleanor off at school, I continued on my bike to find the lab, slightly beyond my known zone in town but not too far afield. A twisted street sign led me down to a dead-end where a man was loading questionable items into a large van. I pedalled faster. Focus, focus. The fresh air was a revelation. The lab was the picture of speed and efficacy after the scene at the hospital vaccination hub the day before. I was in and out of there in under twenty minutes, wait time included. And even though I’d paid for a PCR test with guaranteed results in 36 hours, they emailed them to me less than eight hours later. Negative. This was good news indeed, notwithstanding the fact that my booster shot had flattened me like a raccoon on a straight stretch of I-40 in Tennessee. I called Jason as soon as I saw the email from the lab. Take your masks off and get back out there with the kids, he said. I teared up. I’m ok, kids! Eleanor came and gave me a big bear hug. We missed you so much! They danced around and bounced in the living room, mommy mommy mommy!
The guidance has changed in the past two weeks in Italy. Now, if you are fully vaccinated and boosted (which I was not two weeks ago, and my booster will be in full force after January 4), you need not isolate unless you are symptomatic. (That was not the case two weeks ago.) Also, I saw to my contact tracing myself and took steps, knowing that I was not going to get a call from ASL (the national healthcare system.) I am glad we have the resources and life setup where I could isolate for those seven days, even if NO OF COURSE I DID NOT ENJOY IT.
Well, I had one day of good health on Wednesday before I succumbed to the family cold on Thursday that Victor came home with on Monday. It wasn’t the worst cold, but it was far from pleasant, lasting four days for each of us. Christmas came and went in a haze. I have lost all track of time (writing this has helped me order events) and hope that this holiday week goes more smoothly. In any event, I am happy to be safe and at home with my family. Everyone in line at the pharmacies for a Covid test and who is travelling stirred in me scant jealousy. I have no desire to travel these days, in spite of my genetic travel bug. I have seen a lot out there in the world. Maybe these Covid years are a time to turn the gaze inward, for those who can. I’ve gotten some great writing done. The lens refocused.