I guess it was inevitable.
Along with so many others this January, I got COVID.
Since the omicron variant, it seems we all know someone who tested positive. It’s not exactly ho-hum, but we’re no longer surprised. My experience has been more trying than some, far luckier than many, and perhaps helpful for some. It’s also been a bit of an adventure ride.
I’d been very careful — or at least I thought I had. I’ve been writing these past two years as an elder dude in “the free state” of Florida, staying a skip ahead of this wily virus and its deadly stepchildren, the mutant variants. We older folk have a special relationship to COVID. In Florida, we make up 75 percent of the fatalities. There’s an old saw about how well you can concentrate when you know you’re being hanged the next day. I’ve been wonderfully concentrated.
Add to that the fact that I’m immunocompromised, and you have a recipe for nearly perfect chronic paranoia.
After a brief period last year — call it our Plague Spring — when the pandemic seemed to be ebbing, the variants got a second — and third — wind. This surge is expected to plunge soon, as it did in South Africa where it was first spotted. (It supposedly came from an unvaxxed immunocompromised patient. That’s why vaccination isn’t just a personal choice.) Hopes are high, but no one this time is predicting that will be the end of it.
I tried to play by the rules. I rejoiced with everyone else last year, after the vaccines were invented, and it seemed the pandemic was over. But then it didn’t end. Though triple-vaxxed, I still masked indoors, I stayed away from crowds and close encounters with anyone whose status I did not know.
I mingled with my own pod, cautiously. Before driving my granddaughters, 5 and 7, to extracurricular piano lessons, I would quiz the girls about school hygiene. I’ve written about my little routine in the past: I’d ask the girls how many of their classmates were wearing masks at school and count how many fingers they held up.
At first, the answer was, “The whole class,” all their little fingers wagging in the air. A couple of months later, as Gov. Ron DeSantis went on the attack against the supposed harms of required masking, then hired an extremist skeptic as his public health chief, I asked our girls again. Answer this time: “Oh, about … half the kids.” Then the guv, and his sidekick doc, announced they would dun — and dock — the salaries of school officials who required masking. That concentrated everybody’s minds — in a freedom-loving way, of course. Last week, when I asked our 5-year-old how many of her 20 or so classmates were now wearing masks, she thought for a moment and said, “Robert.”
(For the record: I always believed kids should stay in school, and gave DeSantis credit for being right about that. It’s his anti-mask, near-fanatical, let-’er-rip, freedom-to-infect policies that I believe have been historically calamitous. What I still ask, will always ask, is why so many Floridians were allowed to become sick in the first place?)
A doomsday prepper
The girls’ finger-wagging gauge was just my way of testing the breeze; the kids stayed safe. The real threat, speaking again in my paranoid capacity, was the entire scene around me.
Back when Florida began to lead the nation in infections, when a couple of millennials would saunter into our apartment house elevator maskless, at least I had a moral chance at carrying the argument. “Hey, guys, masks, please.” Occasionally, I’d hear back, “Hey state law says we don’t have to.” But mostly, our fellow residents gracefully complied.
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Not now. Masks are much rarer, both in elevators and grocery stores. For the 72 percent of Floridians who are vaccinated, that’s understandable. Life is generally lived outdoors here, we yearn for normalcy. As to the 28 percent unvaccinated, that’s their decision, as DeSantis likes to say. Problem is, it’s not just their decision. We immunos are, in terms of mortal danger, unwillingly in the same boat as the great unvaxxed. Hospitalizations and fatalities, even under “mild” omicron, are exponentially higher for them — and us.
The real message here in Florida seemed to be, Pops, you’re on your own. Duck and take cover; we’re partying here. I understand. I moved here because it’s a fun place to be. But as omicron began to skyrocket, I could read the writing on the wall. I wasn’t going to be able to depend on the kindness of strangers — or the state — to keep me safe. I began to wonder how long my luck against a breakthrough would hold out.
So I became a kind of “doomsday prepper.” Be prepared, the Boy Scout motto. One of our two sons became an Eagle Scout. This isn’t mindless Dad-bragging, folks. (OK, it is. But it plays a part in this adventure.) I began to create detailed what-if disaster plans.
If anything happened to me, I’d have to move fast.
I purchased a half-dozen at-home COVID tests for my whole family. It was pre-rationing days; plenty of kits were still available. I even shelled out for the Lucira test kit, the Lamborghini of home testing, touted as equivalent to a lab PCR test. Expensive, but when you can’t wait and have to know for sure … just in case.
By now, there were some potential remedies available. Pharma had come through. There were three monoclonal-antibody treatments, which had to be used quickly after infection. Two were useless against omicron, a third impossible to find. I made notes. Just in case.
I am blessed with a primary-care doctor here in Tampa who is humane, flexible and thinks outside the box. I asked him to put me on a Tampa General Hospital list of potential recipients for any monoclonals available. Figuring speed would be of the essence, I asked him for his phone number for emergency text use. Just in case.
But the new antiviral pills, recently announced, could be the real lifesavers. Developed by Pfizer, the pills were the first to offer a real whack at the virus, with an 89 percent success rate. (I wondered who were among the unsuccessful 11 percent.) The catch: They had to be used within 3 to 5 days of the first symptoms, or they wouldn’t work. These wonder tablets, I heard, would take up to five months to be manufactured. But a few early versions had been shipped. I made a note of the brand name, Paxlovid. Just in case.
(One further brand-new monoclonal treatment came up just this year, specifically aimed at prevention, branded as Evusheld. I checked around. Boy, the online rumors on where to find that were wild. Some small clinics were thought to have scored some. I figured this was going to be political. Florida is not, shall we say, a pristine state about money, influence and who gets what first.)
Finally, as I drummed my fingers, binge-watching TV in our bunker above the bay, I reviewed my antibody numbers. Just in case.
Complicated stuff, antibodies, especially for the immunocompromised. When I was first diagnosed with watch-and-wait non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma, I had two reactions: terror and gratitude. Dread for having an incurable blood disease, a big “whew!” that it was going to wait. My hematologist, another smart, super-busy doctor, was wryly witty: Don’t worry, any number of other diseases could kill you first.
My other takeaway was that I was now officially “immunocompromised.” I knew very little about the word, except that it was tricky to type. Autocorrect went crazy on me.
It turns out, to be immunocompromised isn’t exactly to have a rare, exotic disease. There are about 10 million of us in the United States, equal to almost half the population of Florida. It includes people who’ve had transplants, who have kidney disease or certain cancers, are undergoing immunosuppressive therapy or chemotherapy, and a surprisingly long list of other conditions.
It also turns out that when they invented vaccines at warp speed (yes, Donald Trump deserves his share of the credit), they didn’t single out how immunos were faring. No time, no incentives. Efficacy numbers for the vaccines — 90 percent-plus — sound awfully good. Unless you were in that missing 10 percent. What was maddening is, there was no sure way to tell if you were making enough antibodies to survive infection, even after several vaxxes.
Complicated critters, antibodies. The general public isn’t supposed to rely on antibody tests, too hard to interpret. But for us immunos, lab tests would tell us something. With my open-minded primary doc’s agreement, I took several AB tests at local labs. I went from zero antibodies after two vaccinations to just barely registering after the booster. My paranoia meter went sharply up.
So that’s where things stood. Binge-watching, reviewing my disaster plans, pointlessly counting antibody numbers. It was Jan. 8.
How much time did I have?
It doesn’t matter how I caught it. It could have been anything, anyone. A millennial in my elevator. A passing stroller.
I tested with my pricey Lucira kit. Beautiful little thing. None of this vague line-on-a-cardboard for Lucira. A tiny white miniature bidet holding the swab liquid, a green light going off after 30 minutes, adamantly beaming “Positive!”
No need to describe the symptoms at length, you’ve read them before. Worst cold ever, doubled. Wastebaskets filling in minutes with tissue. Coughs that would startle the crows that perch on our balcony. Head splitting. A demon perched permanently in my throat, scratching, scratching.
The real tension was time. To make sure it didn’t get worse, how much time did I have?
My adult son Blair, back from working abroad, was staying with us for the duration, in our extra bedroom. He’s an internet entrepreneur — isn’t everyone his age? — but he’s also got extra chops. He’s a former journalist, and — this part is crucial — he’s the ex-Boy Scout. “Being Prepared” comes naturally to him.
My wife, Thia, and I instantly began to isolate from each other. I’ve been known to be dispatched to the couch in our long marriage; this time, she was the one. I was getting incoherent fast, so she texted my doctor: Operation Monoclonal needed to be launched. Shortly after, we got a phone call back from Tampa General Hospital Global Emerging Disease Outpatient Clinic. Because of my immuno condition, I was approved for therapeutics.
But. No monoclonals available. Not even the ones ineffective against omicron. I managed to ask if the good one, sotrovimab, was available. I was groggy, but I could swear I heard a slight are-we-kidding-here tone in the reply: Nope. But I was cleared for remdesivir infusions! Another hard-to-pronounce therapy, this is an older antiviral that had showed some effectiveness against COVID. President Donald Trump was treated with it in 2020. I wasn’t going to pass up anything. Sure! Infusions would start the next day.
Meanwhile, across the apartment, Blair had gone to work. Somewhere in our old boxes, there is a green sash with his 21 merit badges, the one he wore during his Eagle ceremony a quarter of a century ago. I don’t know if he used his orienteering-badge skills or his navigation-badge skills, but Blair had laid down a grid of every CVS and Walgreen’s within 150 miles. He’d begun calling one number after another. Hello, any Paxlovid? It was a long, long shot.
He’d done the math. (There’s a math merit badge, I think.) If I’d caught the virus earlier than my symptoms, we had a very narrow window. He had to succeed at his quest this very night!
An hour or so later, Blair and Thia knocked at my door. I could tell something Scout-like was up. I imagined I could hear the hoots of owls around a campfire.
“I found some, Dad!”
“Paxlovid. Believe it or not. A CVS!” He named a town about 100 miles north of us. “I’m driving there now.”
“We’re gonna need your doctor to call in the prescription, stat!”
Thia manned the phone and we lucked out. My doctor responded, and we relayed it to Blair in our car, driving nearly two hours to the small-city CVS. And right back, the same night.
Four hours later, a tap at the door.
“Here ya go, Dad.” The eagle had landed.
Infused with enthusiasm
It’s 10 days later as I write this. I’ve been through a week of infusion, I’ve taken five days’ worth of tablets sized for a horse, and I’m feeling much better.
I don’t know what helped me, or if anything helped me. Maybe it was just my antibodies, maybe it was the remdesivir, maybe it was the Paxlovid. I may never know for sure. But we threw everything at it, and I’m profoundly grateful to all who helped. Most of all, I’m thankful I was vaxxed. How much worse it might have been.
Meanwhile, I’m back in the land of the living. If that’s what you want to call our civilization at this juncture.
DeSantis, looking at a presidential run, has just cheered the Supreme Court’s decision to knock down President Joe Biden’s private company vaccine mandates. He’s also just denounced the Supreme Court for allowing vaccine mandates for health workers to stand. I’ve just spent a week being infused by immensely helpful and overworked health workers and, honestly, I hadn’t known that was a thing.
Trump and DeSantis have just traded insults over — get this — DeSantis’ refusal to admit he got a booster shot. Unlike Trump, who fessed up boldly and instantly, half a year after getting his. (I just knew, when I heard Biden praise Trump for his warp-speed role in 2020, vaccine support would be forthcoming from Mar-a-Lago. Of course, praise is all it took.) Meanwhile, Trump went to Arizona, pressing his claims as the authentic president, declaring that antiviral COVID therapies are being rigged in favor of the undeserving, his latest MAGA cause.
Unless the virus totally recedes, once and for all, this issue of prioritizing the limited COVID treatments is just the beginning. I’m calling that one now. It’s going to be huge. Experts are already parsing the unfairness of an unvaxxed 30-year-old obese patient getting pill priority over a vaxxed 50-year-old smoker. ... Let the battles begin.
The only ones above the fray are us immunos. For a change. Yes, we’re the priority. About time we got some attention. For help that may not even be available, granted. But at least we’re high up on somebody’s list. Not just for our sake. For yours, too, I hope.
The surge could plummet as fast as it rose. I’m an optimist. But if you’re like me, be a good scout, do yourself a good deed. Prepare.
Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.