Penn Pandemic Diary

Penn Pandemic Diary, Entry #30: Living in a Time of Ambiguity

May 21, 2020
By Anonymous | Penn Pandemic Diary

The author is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.

An email from a research institution respected in my professional field says that a friend is presenting there soon. “We’ll have to catch up while you’re in town!” I say in an email, intending to go to her talk. That same day, another friend texts: “I’ve got a spare ticket for a basketball game, if you want to come!” The game is after the research presentation. I decide to make a day of it and go to both.

That day did not take place during a normal time in history. This was March 2020, and the United States was just beginning to realize what COVID-19 was going to mean for daily life. The think tank hosting my friend’s talk asked people to sit several seats apart but had not yet taken all such talks digital. The basketball game was one of the NCAA’s last before canceling the annual March Madness championship tournament.

A few days later, I notice a cold sweat while walking down the street. “Probably nothing, I think to myself.” The next day, I feel more conventionally flu-like chills and fatigue. I check my temperature, and there’s no fever, but I end up skipping a birthday party that day, just to be safe. I call a hotline for people experiencing flu-like symptoms. “We’re not doing testing on weekends here in Virginia,” says a sympathetically beleaguered-sounding woman on the other end of the line. “I’d go to one of the hospitals in DC.” Not enthusiastic about the idea of trading germs with everyone else in the ER waiting room, I decide I’m instead going to stay inside for a while.

The next day, I’m feeling pretty lethargic and running a fever. I mostly stay in bed or on the sofa except for occasional rushed trips to the bathroom. I look up COVID symptoms and it appears that it’s usually a respiratory-only disease without any digestive systems. “Probably the flu, then,” I think to myself, weirdly happy to having gotten sick despite receiving a flu shot. But I have to wonder: is it possible to catch the flu and COVID at the same time? I ask a couple of doctors, and their answer is essentially that no one knows yet what a co-infection would look like—yes, I learned a new word too—but decide again it’s probably best to stay inside.

The fever breaks in a few days, but I have a persistent cough that lasts weeks. That fades over time, as does the self-quarantine period. As I’m reemerging into what I quickly discover is a very different outside world, though, I see a news article. Most patients in Wuhan had digestive symptoms, it says. What if that was me as well? At this point, though, I’m post-illness and would probably test negative were I to somehow land a testing kit, probably at the expense of someone who needs it more. Enjoying my renewed access to sunlight and glad that whatever I had is over with, I decide it’s not worth worrying too much about. But at the same time, it would be nice to know if I have resistance. And they say people with antibodies can donate plasma to current patients!

I still don’t know whether I had COVID. Until antibody tests become more reliable, I probably won’t for some time. During the phone calls and Zoom chats that have become part of our daily rhythms, though, I’ve come to realize that my experience was pretty typical. “He and his fiancée both had it! She was on a business trip to New York but flew back once things started getting bad. She got sick once she got to back to LA, and then he got it too. They couldn’t get tested, though.” “My fiancé’s in London and had some chills and a mild fever. We don’t know what it was but we’re treating it like COVID to be safe.”

COVID-19’s ambiguous symptoms and the shortage of testing kits mean that it’s difficult to know if one has it. Minor flu-like symptoms are a very different experience these days than they might have been a year ago. Not knowing whether you are part of a generation-defining event has become weirdly commonplace. Our greatest source of strength in the face of such uncertainty, though, is knowing that everyone else is dealing with it, too.

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.