“I think someone entered something in your chart wrong,” a physician's assistant said to me over a video call on Saturday. “It says you’ve had COVID-19 three times.”
“Nope, not a mistake.” I smiled, chuckling at her confounded expression. “Isn’t that hilarious?”
At this point, nearly two years into this pandemic, vaccinated and having symptomatic COVID for the third time, all I can really do is laugh.
I’ve been first in line for each new variant. I’m a COVID nerd, collecting each new edition. I gotta catch ’em all. I’m one of those guys in the lawn chairs outside of the Apple Store every time a new iPhone drops. I’ve punched each hole on the variant punch card: Omicron, Delta, and original flavor. Coronavirus 3: The Sickening.
I know this is no laughing matter. People I know have died, or nearly died, from COVID. I am lucky I am not immunocompromised. I am lucky to have access to doctors, resources, and a support system. I don’t have asthma. I’m lucky I have enough breath to laugh at all.
“Wow, that is brutal, I’m so sorry,” Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, a professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, said to me after I told him about my situation. “But boy, I would love to get some blood samples from you.”
I was flattered.
Bhattacharya says my situation is incredibly rare. Including all my infections and vaccinations, I have been directly exposed to the virus, or parts of it that trigger an immune reaction, five times. My antibodies should be as jacked as an Instagram bodybuilder. But apparently, they’re not.
It was hard for him to say why this has been the case for me. It’s possible I am genetically predisposed to have low antibody levels. Or it could be that I “won the bad luck jackpot.”
Even if I do seem to be a freak of immunological nature, I am not the only one. For this article I tweeted about being cursed thrice with COVID, hoping to find others. After sifting through dozens of predictably brutal condemnations of my behavior from total strangers, I found I was not alone.
“So what’s wrong with us?” Lucien Baskin, a 23-year-old graduate student who lives in Midwood, Brooklyn, asked me — once I fought my fatigue enough to give them a call. “Should I buy a lottery ticket?”
The First Time I Got COVID
The first time I got COVID, hipster that I am, was right when it started trending. It was in March 2020, the first week of lockdown. Back then, we were so young and dumb. There were barely any COVID tests available to the general public (unlike now, where you need to wait hours for a nose swab). Losing your sense of taste and smell was just a rumored symptom.
Lucien, who uses he/they pronouns, got it for the first time in February 2021. They attribute this to their large apartment building where few people wear masks.
As I lay on my couch and felt like I couldn’t move, my partner at the time zipped around me, making jokes and playing music, full of nervous energy. I had a splitting headache that I thought was a migraine. I suggested I may have The Novel Coronavirus, but my partner convinced me it was just anxiety about the world ending. Fair enough. But then I accidentally smashed a bottle of perfume on my bathroom floor and it smelled like nothing.
Lucien also had a high fever and contemplated going to the hospital that first time, but they opted to just eat a bunch of Tylenol and try to sleep it off. Luckily, that worked.
A couple months later, my sense of smell had returned and I tested positive for antibodies. My live-in partner, for whatever reason, did not.
The Second Time I Got COVID
In April 2021, the vaccine came. I got a double shot of Moderna. Lucien got Pfizer. For a brief moment, everything seemed like it was going to be OK. No one wore masks indoors. Strangers smiled at each other on the street. I went dancing in a crowded indoor bar with my friends. At first I nearly had a panic attack — I hadn’t smelled strangers’ sweat in over a year — but then I took a couple shots of tequila and sang along to Madonna and openly cried with relief. It was euphoric. This was not the second time I got COVID.
Lucien was more conservative in their behavior than me. They believe they caught it a second time watching the European championship games indoors at a local café in early July, right as the Delta variant started spreading around New York. They couldn’t believe it.
I got it just a few weeks later, in mid-August. New York hadn’t yet passed the law requiring bars and restaurants to check vaccine cards and IDs for entry, so I had started wearing a mask again when ordering. I went to a bar with a large outdoor area and an indoor dance floor with some coworkers, briefly dancing inside. I went to an outdoor work party. I was lucky enough to not have to go into an office and rarely had to leave my neighborhood. I took no more risks than most of my vaccinated friends, and many of them took more risks than me.
One afternoon, I went to the beach. I thought it was cold out, but no one else did. My throat started to hurt. I didn’t think I had COVID, but I got tested anyway: one rapid, one PCR. The rapid was negative. The next day, I got an email about my PCR: positive. I slammed my computer shut and started crying.
I don’t know how I got it this second time, either. I informed everyone I had seen, even the person who I had likely kissed while infected. No one tested positive. My friend’s husband (jokingly?) accused me of being a hippie who had lied about her vaccine status.
Lucien said their symptoms were less severe the second time. For me, it was worse. This could have been that the symptoms actually were more intense, or it could have been because I got dumped on day one of my 10-day quarantine.
My symptoms were flu-like at first: low-grade fever, headache, congestion, mild cough. But then those faded, and the symptoms became more easily justified as psychological. I wondered if I actually couldn’t breathe or was just having a days-long anxiety attack. My primary care doctor told me to get a pulse oximeter to measure my oxygen levels and prescribed me an inhaler. If you’re 95% oxygen saturation or above, you’re good; 91–94, contact a doctor. Below 90, call 911. My oxygen levels never went below the point when you should check yourself into a hospital, but they got close.
I attempted to distract myself with work but would find that I was regularly writing words phonetically instead of how they were actually spelled. At a certain point, it felt like I’d hit an invisible wall. Suddenly, even typing “Not feeling good, gotta take a break” in Slack took significant effort. It was deeply depressing and isolating. I would try to go for a jog, something I had been doing nearly every day for months, and feel fine as I did it only to be hit over the head with a hammer of renewed symptoms hours or a day later. I was lying on the floor a lot. My cat seemed concerned.
These symptoms lasted months after I was allowed back out in the world. I couldn’t drink alcohol without almost immediately feeling like I had developed a cold. I felt I looked older, that I had lost some of my hair. I took advantage of what I thought must be a renewed set of powerful antibodies to socialize with friends, only to feel, all of a sudden, that I had to get home immediately. Despite my last name, I hate Irish goodbyes. I love the drama of a long farewell.
The Third Time Having COVID
By late October, I felt mostly normal. I started running again and drinking alcohol. I went to a residency in rural Virginia for a month and wrote part of a book.
I couldn't get access to the booster in Virginia. When I returned to New York just before Thanksgiving, I attempted to get boosted but was turned away at the door due to a scheduling error.
My birthday was Dec. 6. All I wanted was to turn 30 with some friends.
I gathered a few people — not too many — at a bar on a Monday, when I thought it would be relatively empty. Two of my close friends, bless their hearts, had just returned from attending Art Basel in Miami. My office holiday party was that week but I decided not to go, joking that it was likely to be a superspreader event. Plus, several of my closest friends were driving and flying in from various states and countries to gather upstate in celebration of the end of my third decade. I didn’t want to risk infecting them. I waited four days after my indoor bar experience and got a rapid and a PCR test. Both negative.
While I was upstate with my friends, with us singing in each other’s faces, accidentally switching wine glasses and water bottles, people in New York City were contracting COVID at a faster rate than ever before.
Turns out I was part of that wave. Somehow, 10 days from the last time I saw them, no one else from my saliva-swapping birthday celebration has tested positive or had symptoms. I am the unlucky one. But I am grateful I did not give all my best friends COVID.
This Omicron wave is Lucien’s third time, too, even though they got their booster two weeks before being exposed to the virus. They posted a screenshot of their three positive tests on Instagram Stories and wrote “Oops, I did it again.”
“Honestly, being able to write that caption sort of made it all worth it,” Lucien joked as we both dissolved into giggles.
This latest experience, for both of us, was much more mild than previous infections. We agreed that this time we recognized it. We woke up with symptoms others could mistake for a cold and just knew, somehow, that it was COVID, again. For me it was something about the way my skin felt my first day of symptoms: hot and prickly, though not like a normal fever, and a cough that felt like something was stuck in my throat.
What was most different this time was that my spirits have been strangely high. Maybe it’s just acceptance. This is despite the March 2020–esque shaming that has reemerged in society. Despite people telling me that I must be being reckless to have gotten it this often.
Maybe they’re right. But I was taking calculated risks to try to live my life while trying my best not to infect the more vulnerable. If I’m feeling sick, I stay home. I wear my mask when I’m supposed to. As soon as I’m out of quarantine, I’ll try again to get my booster. That’s all I can do.
And in any case, this is a public health issue. Blaming individual actions only kicks people while they’re down. It also draws attention away from government officials and healthcare companies to do things like increase global vaccine access and make testing more easily affordable and available.
I understand my story scares people. It’s easier to decide it’s my fault than something that could happen to you.
Hopefully, That Was The Last Time
Nearly everyone I know right now in New York City has either recently tested positive or been exposed. While I wish that it weren’t the case, it has leant a camaraderie to this experience that was significantly lacking the first two times. This time I have been isolating, but I have not been isolated.
I’m in multiple group chats — named “media girls w/ covid” and “Ema’s little covid warriors” — in which friends share jokes and commiserate about symptoms and boredom. They’ve also served as a helpful means of getting medical advice and care when the healthcare systems we rely on are overwhelmed. My experience with this virus has made me a valued resource. The other day my friend referred to me as “the COVID Doula.”
I am not dispensing medical advice, don’t worry. But I can recommend an oximeter, which you can order from your local pharmacy and lends peace of mind when you’re feeling short of breath. I can suggest asking your doctor, if you have one, about getting an inhaler, which can help open up your airways when it's hard to breathe. Don’t drink alcohol, even if you’re feeling better. Watch movies over TV shows — the time passes quicker. Eucalyptus in the shower is pretty, smells good, and helps with respiratory issues. Mucinex is great for congestion and coughs and gets me a little high in a fun way. (I am not condoning recreational abuse of over-the-counter drugs!) Drink endless liquids. If you’re having chest pains unrelated to coughing, call a doctor.
I felt this camaraderie as I spoke to Lucien as well. We compared symptoms and genetic backgrounds, attempting to see if we have anything in common. But then we came to the question that has been on our minds as we’ve been shut inside: Are the rules different for us now?
“I am really confused about what to do next,” Lucien said. “I’ve been thinking, when I’m done with my quarantine this time, I’m good, right? I can take the train and be out in the world?”
“We have to be immune, at least for a little bit,” I responded, desperation peaking in my voice. I want to spend Christmas with my family.
“This has failed me multiple times, this way of thinking,” Lucien said, adding that he is supposed to teach in person next semester. “Do we keep getting boosters? Do we isolate forever? What are the rules for us? How are we supposed to know? It’s not like we can look up the research on people who have had COVID three times.”
Lucien is right, Bhattacharya confirmed. There have been some studies on reinfection, but they have indicated that most people with antibodies who get reinfected are asymptomatic, or have symptoms so mild they don’t notice they’re sick. He was unaware of any studies of people having three symptomatic infections. This is why he wants my blood.
Bhattacharya did have some good news — not for me or Lucien, but for most of you: Us being vaccinated and getting COVID three times in less than two years is not a dark omen of an inevitable future. You are not likely to become us.
“Three symptomatic infections with vaccines sandwiched in between there… That’s sort of different level unlucky, Ema, I’m sorry,” Bhattacharya said.
Based on studies of prior coronavirus patterns, as this pandemic continues, and as new variants like Omicron spring up, people will get reinfected with some frequency, he continued. And part of the reason it's spread like wildfire, he said, is because there are still a lot of people with no immunity whatsoever.
“But with the assistance of vaccines and prior infections leading to some immunity, an increasingly large fraction of those [getting reinfected] will be, if not completely asymptomatic, symptomatic to the point where you hardly notice it.”
How long it will take to get to that place, Bhattacharya added, is still up in the air.
“I guess we’re sort of the guinea pigs to see what this looks like,” Lucien said at the end of our conversation. “And if we both end up with COVID again in February, well…”
I’m going to act as though I have the same immunity as everyone else, at least for the next month. I’m going to celebrate the holidays. I’m going to see my friends. Maybe I’m being Charlie Brown trying to kick the football over and over only to have it pulled away each time, but I can’t keep myself in a bubble forever. I’ve gotta live my life.
But if you’re a scientist and you want to study my blood, please, by all means, take it. Merry Christmas. ●