OP-ED: Answers to common reader questions about my COVID-19 ordeal

Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
A COVID-19 particle is pictured in this image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC/TNS)

Earlier this week I wrote about my October COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization, and hundreds of readers have reached out through email and social media with support, questions and a few criticisms.

Thank you sincerely to everyone who wrote. Here, I'm going to try to answer the questions and criticisms that have come up most frequently, in the spirit of us all being in this together.

How did you catch it?

I truly don't know. I realize that's an uncomfortable answer for people who want to know what mistake I made so they can avoid making the same one — I would have been inclined to ask the same question of someone else, prior to my own infection — but I'm afraid it's not that simple.

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It's an airborne, highly contagious virus. Public health experts now estimate one in every 15 Chicagoans has it. Maybe I touched an infected pin pad at the grocery store or bank and didn't wash my hands before I touched my eye. Maybe I walked or ran or biked through someone's COVID-19 cloud in my neighborhood. I wear a mask whenever I leave the house, but I pass lots of people who don't. We stopped wiping down our groceries and mail when Dr. Anthony Fauci said those measures weren't necessary. Maybe we shouldn't have stopped.

It would be easier — for me and for the people I'm telling my story to — if I had a single outing or event that I could point to in the two weeks or so leading up to my diagnosis. But we didn't have friends or family over. We didn't attend a wedding or other gathering. We gave up our gym memberships and hadn't eaten inside a restaurant or drunk inside a bar since March.

This isn't a statement for or against the lockdowns and capacity limits our leaders are putting in place. This is just an honest answer from a person who contracted COVID-19.

Why would you call for a national mask mandate when a mask didn't protect you?

There is tremendous, overwhelming scientific evidence that masks work. But they work best if everyone wears them.

"Masks are primarily intended to reduce the emission of virus-laden droplets, which is especially relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others, and who are estimated to account for more than 50% of transmissions," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Masks also help reduce inhalation of these droplets by the wearer. The community benefit of masking for SARS-CoV-2 control is due to the combination of these effects; individual prevention benefit increases with increasing numbers of people using masks consistently and correctly."

Why did you wait so long to go to the hospital/why did you bother going to the hospital?

Several people chastised me for not going to the hospital sooner, especially because I already have a heart condition from a 2011 bout with viral meningitis. Others wrote to say my hospital visit was a waste of time and money and that my doctors were just ordering up unnecessary tests so they could bill my insurance.

I'm lending oxygen to these claims because they're likely widely held. One of the most disorienting feelings, for me, was the uncertainty about how seriously to take my symptoms. Should I bug my doctor with another question? Should I text my sweet nurse friends and ask why my eyeballs are shaking? Am I having an aneurysm or am I just really tired? Was that chest pain or heartburn from lying down after eating?

I kept in close contact with my primary care physician's office and went to the emergency room when she said to. Doctors almost immediately discovered injury to my heart and ordered tests accordingly.

I also received blood thinner shots to prevent clots. There's data showing an increase in strokes among young and middle-aged adults with COVID-19, and the virus can also cause heart attacks or dangerous heart rhythms. I'm glad I went to the hospital, and I want others to feel empowered and justified to do the same, in conjunction with their doctors' input.

How did your family avoid the virus?

My husband and kids were tested two more times each after my positive test and all their tests came back negative. I ran this question by epidemiologist John Segreti, medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University.

Household transmission takes place about 50% of the time one person is infected, according to recent CDC studies, Segreti said. That's slightly higher than household transmission of influenza and quite a bit lower than transmission of chickenpox and measles, prior to widespread vaccination for those viruses, he said.

"Not everyone who's exposed to COVID necessarily gets infected," he said. "Is it because they are naturally immune to it? Were they infected with a different coronavirus in the past so that they have antibodies that protect them? Could it be that they got infected but didn't have any symptoms? It's estimated that 40% of people infected have no symptoms."

It's unclear at this point. This virus is relatively new to us all.

Regardless, Segreti said, a person should isolate from household members as soon as they learn or suspect they have COVID-19.

"You don't know when you become contagious," he said. "Usually it's one or two days before you develop symptoms, but you can shed the virus for days after."

Did you go ahead with your daughter's birthday celebration?

No. I began isolating in a spare bedroom as soon as I got my positive test and my husband and kids quarantined at home for two weeks; no guests.

Was it really wise of you to try to host her friends in the first place?

Readers have chastised me for "wasting" tests just to try to host a small birthday celebration. Others have pointed out, correctly, that testing one day and gathering another isn't foolproof — any of the participants involved could become infected between test date and gathering date.

As we approach Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow, many people are making similar calculations. Should my asymptomatic child get tested before he or she comes home from college? Can we gather with family or friends if we all get tested and then quarantine?

The guidance is clear. The CDC says the lowest-risk Thanksgiving is one celebrated solely with those who already live in your home. Dr. Michael Lin, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University System for Health, told the Tribune he doesn't recommend testing as a prelude to holiday gatherings.

I'm not sharing my story to apply for sainthood. I'm sure I've made mistakes along the way. I'm sharing it so others can possibly learn from my particular experience. We simply will not make it through this without looking out for one another.

— Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.