To be honest, I didn’t want to write this post. But after sharing a little of my experience on social media, a number of folks reached out asking me to talk about my potential experience with COVID-19 and anti-body testing. This is obviously not my usual content and I am certainly not a medical professional. But I offer the following as one more story of just how pervasive this virus is and why we need to continue to fight hard to prevent it’s spread.
In February, I was traveling across Europe on a book tour when the virus began to spread rapidly in Italy. On the day I left Geneva, Switzerland to head back to California, I watched a news report where a man who had the virus said it was “no worse than the cold” while laughing on a Swiss newscast. I hoped he was right, and continued home to San Diego where we continued with life as usual. I am the pastor of a small church, and each week I witnessed people continue to gather, but becoming more and more cautious as the virus breached the shores of our country.
Our “pass the peace” ritual, usually involving a lot of hugs and handshakes, quickly became a time of nodding and waving at others. Our hand sanitizer began to get used a lot more frequently, and we stocked up on disinfectant spray and Clorox wipes. It all felt a little overly cautious, but being the hypochondriac, I am, I wanted to make sure we were prepared to make our church as safe as possible. Then, by the beginning of March, I began to feel a little ill- body aches and a sore throat. This was normal for me- since moving to Southern California my seasonal allergies have affected me year-round- so I didn’t initially panic. I continued to hang out with friends, I continued to go to work- no social distancing orders had even been implemented yet.
On March 6, things started to feel different. I woke up covered in sweat and my chest felt very congested. I took my temperature- it was 101 degrees. Immediately I texted my roommates to tell them that I was sick, and I contacted my doctor’s office in order to get a COVID-19 test. When I finally got on the phone with the doctor, who only was doing virtual appointments with patients who have symptoms of the virus, I was told that despite my symptoms there was really no clear indicator if I was a high risk for the virus and that testing wasn’t currently available because of my lack of risk factors. I was informed to quarantine at home and ride out whatever illness I may have.
So, I did. I used Amazon Prime Now to order a bunch of essential supplies- a case of water, a ton of snack food, some soup- and I laid in bed for a week. My symptoms got worse- I developed a cough, lost my sense of taste, had a sore throat, and began feeling pains in my upper back. But nothing was all that severe- in my head, I told myself this was just a bad flair up of allergies, which kept me positive through it all. In my home, I wore a mask whenever I left my room and nearly suffocated my roommates with the amount of Lysol, I sprayed on any surface I touched. I stayed hunkered down. About twelve days later, I began to gradually feel better.
At this point, COVID-19 had caused us to cancel church services and forced the whole country into isolation. My anxiety about potentially getting the virus continued to increase, and I continued to do all of the things that were recommended- social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing etc. For the next month, I continued to struggle with a bit of a cough and congestion, which seemed to indicate that allergies were at least part of my struggle, and as I heard more stories about others COVID-19 experience, I began to seriously wonder if I had experienced the virus.
Which brings me to this week. On Tuesday, I received an email from my primary care doctor saying that they had COVID-19 Antibody tests available. These tests, though not approved by the FDA, were said to have “high accuracy” in the samples that had been taken and could help answer the question of whether or not I had actually been infected. I scheduled a test for the next morning (today), did a virtual screening with the doctor to ensure I didn’t currently have symptoms of the virus, and arrived at the parking garage behind my doctor’s office, where I was greeted by two doctors in medical robes and masks. I signed some forms; they pricked my finger and drew a bit of blood and had me wait for about ten minutes.
As I sat on the curb, reading a book, the doctor approached me and said, “Brandan, it looks like you have been exposed to the virus, but have recovered.” She explained that these results were not 100% conclusive but based on the fact that I had experienced the full range of symptoms, that it was very likely that I had COVID-19. When I heard the response, at first, I was relieved. There has been a hope floating around in the news that there is a potential for immunity to the virus. Then the doctor said, “And to be clear, you may have immunity, but no one is sure. So please continue social-distancing, hand washing etc.”
I immediately texted my roommates, one of whom was at another location getting a similar test and told them the results. “You likely have been exposed to the virus too!” I said. Just then, my roommate texted “My result was negative! You were really good at quarantining yourself.” At first, I was confused, because I honestly didn’t think I had done enough to protect my house mates, but apparently my aggressive Lysol-ing had worked.
So here I sit, fairly confident that I have had and recovered from COVID-19. While it’s absolutely true that these tests are not 100% accurate and many are not FDA approved, for an individual like me who had most of the symptoms as well as the anti-body test, I have been told that I should feel confident in these results. But what exactly does this result change? The answer is nothing at all. We still have no idea if immunity to COVID-19 is possible, and we have examples of individuals around the world appearing to contract the virus more than once. Those who test positive should still maintain strict social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing until we have contained this virus on a large scale.
The only real changes for those who have recovered from the virus are a few realizations. One, I believe that many more of us have had COVID-19 than have been reported. I had not been included in the numbers of those infected until today and based on reporting I suspect that millions more have had or will have the virus. This means that we must keep up our fight against it even as this season of shut down drags on.
Two, it is a bit of relief for those of us who have been unable to access actual COVID-19 testing- to know that it is likely that we have had the virus and recovered from it will produce a sense of gratitude mixed with sobriety. I know that there are many young people like me who have not been so blessed to experience this as mildly as I did, and I am feeling more committed to fighting this than ever before.
Third, for those who are able to give blood or plasma, a positive test result may open the door to do so in a way that could potentially aid so many struggling with this virus. Unfortunately, as a gay man, I am unable to do either, even with the “relaxed” restrictions of the FDA. But if you are heterosexual and able- please do consider stepping up to help out!
And lastly, we should not have to play a guessing game with this virus. My experience has simply highlighted how unprepared we were as a nation to handle a pandemic like this. Testing is still not available for most Americans. The tests that are available may not be accurate due to the FDA’s relaxation of testing protocol. The fact that I still have to say that I “potentially” or “likely” had the virus exposes just how dangerous our situation remains. We have to do better.
By way of conclusion, I want to make clear, once again, that I am not a medical professional. All of the information I have shared here is based on my experience alone, and the information I have received from my doctors or from the State and local calls that I have been included on as a faith leader. According to recent reporting, individuals should be weary of the results of the current antibody tests that are available because there is a chance that they may be faulty. They certainly aren’t essential. But for me, they helped give a little more clarity to my own likely experience with COVID-19 and opened my eyes to see a little more just have pervasive this virus has been and will continue to be.
For the sake of our own health and the health of our friends, family, and neighbors, let’s continue to fight this virus by staying home, social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing facemasks. These are small sacrifices to make to save millions of lives. One day, we will return to a world where we are able to hug each other, eat out, go to the movies, and lay on the beach once again. But in order to get to that day, we must each continue to do our part.