I tested negative for COVID-19: Here’s my story of exposure, anxiety and relief

I am not perfect, and I’ve never been particularly great at taking direction. As a child I always received low grades in art, of all subjects, because I couldn’t focus long enough to master technique, the way to hold a brush or how to appropriately mold, etc. During my first attempt at a driver’s license I failed because I argued with the instructor about proper reversing technique (he was right, mirrors aren’t enough you–have to look behind you). However, I’ve consistently always tried my best with the understanding that I wouldn’t always get it right, and that’s okay because almost nothing is a matter of life and death. Almost nothing.

I’ve taken the Coronavirus pandemic very seriously. Back in February, I bought dry goods and non-perishables in the event my roommates and I needed to quarantine. I stopped traveling home to St. Louis, instead spending my time in sparsely populated Northeast Missouri. I wore my mask everywhere and I maintained social distance. I even avoided gas pumps and doorknobs if there were no gloves nearby. I was meticulous, but I was not perfect.

My neighbors and I would spend time together, a beer shared here or frisbee tossed across the yard. I’d see my girlfriend, not nearly enough for either of our liking, but with some regularity, even though she is an essential worker at a local grocery chain. That saying, “Old habits die hard” rang especially true for me, as I never got the hang of the elbow bump and never stopped shaking hands. This isn’t to say I’m a Covid-19 truther; I should say I feel very far from it, but rather I happen to be an imperfect person struggling to balance my need for human connection and a real desire not to get sick.

When I was eventually exposed however, it wasn’t because of any of my previous shortcomings. A friend of a friend of my girlfriend got sick. She had been traveling to Texas and around town to bars and was seemingly unconcerned about the virus until it arrived at her doorstep. For days she didn’t know if she was sick, maybe a cold, or allergies, or hangover, or something else. However, instead of taking precautions as a preventative measure, just in case, she lived undisturbed. She went out, she invited people over. One of those people she invited over was a friend of my girlfriend, who happened to also be her roommate. The week after this contact, my girlfriend’s friend asked to share electronic cigarettes and drinks, and made home visits, and went out to bars.

She visited me about five days after her Covid-19 exposure to apologize for a rude comment that left her uninvited to my intimate birthday dinner. It was awkward, I didn’t look at her much, because I don’t like her much, I kept my distance but we shared a room, shared air, and yes shared a hug at the conclusion of her apology. She isn’t a malicious person, just raised in a part of St. Louis that never required her to face diversity or truly be accountable for her actions. She was oblivious, annoying, and prejudiced but not mean. As I walked her out of the door, I felt relieved, I’d finally gotten her to stop pestering me and I could reliably say that I wouldn’t have to think about her all summer. I was wrong.

Later that afternoon the friend of a friend revealed on snapchat “I’m COVID positive! lol get tested!” I’d later learn that the friend of a friend was very sick, pneumonia sick and not necessarily improving. My roommates and I were unconcerned because we hadn’t seen her, but then another snapchat appeared from my girlfriend’s friend/roommate with a more somber tone. “I’ve recently learned I’ve been exposed to Covid-19, if you’ve had close contact with me then you should get tested.” Neither sent this message to the individuals they had contact with, it was left public on a platform where content disappears in 24 hours. I’m still struck by how irresponsible this mode of communication was. Suppose I hadn’t been on my phone. Or suppose I had chosen not to consume the content of people I don’t really care for. I might not have ever known that I’d been exposed. It was the kind of anti-confrontational thing that generation Z is known for.

My roommates and my neighbors and my girlfriend (who usually lives at home, but visited Kirksville during her friend’s exposure) decided that the best course of action was to wait to see if my girlfriend’s friend tested positive, because if she did, then we were truly exposed; however, if she did not we were not. There is something about the anticipation of either way, whether it is good news or bad news that always has unsettled me. I acknowledge one of my faults as a human being is my need to be in control, and a deep discomfort with uncertainty. This was like something out of a nightmare, the waiting and pacing and the virtual radio silence from my girlfriend’s friend during the process. However, the results eventually came, positive. We all needed to be tested because we’d all been exposed.

One of my roommates had already been living on unemployment. Her job had refused to schedule her since March, and things were hard before the Covid-19 relief stimulus was passed (and have been hard since because it has lapsed). My other roommate has been a delivery driver for a pizza chain, but he was forcibly unemployed because of our mandated quarantine, leaving me as the primary breadwinner in the house. We felt a lot of emotions the first day, how would we afford to live and how long would we need to be inside were the first things that came to mind. What came next was panic. One of my roommates had their grandmother visit the day after our exposure, her asthmatic grandmother. Then what came was a deep awareness of our own mortality which I suppose we had not considered. The fatalities for people in our age range is not especially high, but it rises for people with pre-existing health problems and myself and another roommate lack health insurance and haven’t been to the doctor in years, so we simply didn’t know if those problems exist within us. We talked about life and death and what comes after, what happens during and what would happen if worse came to worse. We had a very frank discussion about property and next of kin and so on. Then came a realization that we had to be tested, we didn’t know for sure and so we needed to know. Here’s what that process was like.

First, I called our local urgent care. We decided, to save money, that only one of us should get tested because if one of us was positive then surely the rest of us were. I figured I could volunteer. The urgent care worker informed me that I needed a virtual consultation before I could be tested, which entailed a doctor calling me on the phone and asking me the same questions the urgent care worker asked, but the difference was I had to wait several hours for that next conversation.

Next, I called our local health department to inform them of the places that I had been, but more importantly the places that my Covid-19 positive associate had been. That conversation did not inspire confidence, as the health department told me that the businesses that had been frequented were under no obligation to inform workers nor patrons that a Covid-19 positive person was a frequent guest. This obviously begs the question: how many businesses know that they could be spreading Covid-19 but simply refuse to shut down or even inform employees to get tested? The health department also let me know I’d have to take part in a contact tracing effort should my results come back positive, which I was somewhat familiar with as I was helping my girlfriend’s Covid-19 positive friend contact trace.

The day following my virtual appointment, early in the morning I drove with my neighbors (who needed to be tested in order to return to work) to the Covid-19 testing site. We took our place in a long line of vehicles and watched as women in painter suits, with face shields, and latex gloves that extended off the elbow approached vehicles, swabbed and then returned to the building. Finally, it was our turn, and we were given paperwork informing us what to do no matter our results, and the test was administered. I wish I could say it didn’t hurt. I wish I could say it was no big deal and everyone should try it. That wasn’t true though, it hurt like hell; it burned when they twisted the apparatus and my nostril felt hollow and violated the entire day after. However once it was done it was done and we were told to expect results in no less than three days, a marvel when you think about the extended time frames for others (a friend in Indiana waited 11 days. He tested negative).

My girlfriend also had to test, and she tried to keep a happy face providing me with self-selected positive information that unfairly skewed the severity of our situation because she too has an issue with control. She lost some of her optimism during her test. She went to be tested in Palmyra near her home, and the doctor took her temperature. It was over 101°F. She called me immediately after and we figured we knew. A fever is never a good sign, and she’d been congested. If her results came back positive, then mine surely were and so were my neighbors and roommates. So, I did what anyone would do, I called my mother and then I called my boss. Both offered their own sage advice to take every day as it comes and express their distraught at my situation, but it was somewhat cold comfort.

I’ve had my experience with panic attacks, they were not just rare but exceedingly rare. Perhaps I’d only had two in my entire life up until that point. In the two days waiting for my test results, I expect that I had if not one every hour, then one every other hour. I could not eat. I became malnourished and lethargic. I could not sleep. I lay awake in bed staring into the darkness thinking of the unknown, wondering if this ache or that pain was attributable to stress or to disease. I could not focus, because every moment, however fleeting, my mind was able to escape from the constant terror that was lurking, I would suddenly race back to it and be drenched in sweat. This was no way to live, and in the unlikely event that I died, I did not want to die without dignity. So, we resolved ourselves to drink, and keep drinking because eventually we find ourselves drinking in celebration or in despair, but in the meantime we can drink for relief, so we did.

We painted, we drank, we cooked, we drank, we watched classic film, we drank, we worked together for my internship, and in the interim we drank. The drinking was an escape but not really, I still thought about the same thing. What would happen to my mother if I wasn’t there to take care of her in her old age? Will I be able to go to school if I’m Covid-19 positive, and if not, where does that leave me? Am I ever going to leave this house again? It was easily one of the most trying times of my life.

After two days of exposure, my girlfriend received her test results back. Negative, the fever was unrelated, and she would be fine. Her exposure was further removed than mine, but I was relieved to know that at least she was okay. I learned that our local testing center doesn’t give results until the end of the day, so we waited in anticipation. Most times silently sitting, staring at the floor more at a blank screen, numbed by this awful experience. We truly didn’t know what to expect, and so all we could do was wait.

Around 5:30 that evening my phone rang, it was the testing center. They asked my name, they asked for my birthday, and they told me that my results were ready. The caller paused for what seemed like an eternity, the words taking their time to leave her mouth. Until finally, “Mr. Ellis, negative.” Those words echoed in my head and I was overwhelmed with emotion, I began to cry (well more like weep) and I hung up the phone. Then the next calls for my neighbors, also negative. We had flown so close to the sun yet remained unburnt, this was cause for celebration.

We took to the highway with our windows down blasting from speakers Frank Sinatra’s “I’m gonna live until I die” and laughing for the first time in days. We drank, again, but this time it was champagne to celebrate life. Things were good, if only for a moment. My girlfriend can still not return to her home in Kirksville as of the publishing of this piece because her roommates are still Covid-19 positive. My roommates are still unemployed, bills are still due, and we still struggle to make ends meet, more so now that it’s time to buy textbooks. 150,000 people in this country, some of them people I have loved but all of them beloved to someone have still perished from this disease. Local communities are still devastated, with many business loans finding their way to cruise ships, as opposed to coffee shops.

Things are not good, I am Covid-19 negative, but things are not good. Perhaps things never truly were good, but they were different in a good way or at least I think they were. I don’t know what comes next, I am still uncomfortable with uncertainty, but now I know I can survive it, and that is good.