Home News and Features A COVID Christmas Carol – Part II

A COVID Christmas Carol – Part II

Selfie by Carla Occaso.
Test Results and Aftermath
Read Part I 
A Visit from COVID Present — Stay Safe This New Year

Getting the Call

It took a year, as of today, Dec. 31, 2020, for COVID-19 to travel from its first known appearance in faraway Wuhan, China, to my body in Central Vermont.

Well, it officially arrived in my body a few days earlier. On Dec. 27, several calls came in on my phone, but I don’t answer calls from unknown origins. Later I checked my voicemail, not expecting a call from the Vermont Department of Health on a Sunday. It was indeed a call from the state, asking me to call back. They don’t call you if you test negative — I knew this from having tested negative three times prior. 

I returned the call, and a man told me I had tested positive. He asked where I worked and a few short questions, and then went on to say a contact tracer would call the next day.

I had been apprehensive about this moment for a year, when the media started showing videos of coronavirus patients sitting on the floor of hospital corridors in China. I looked back over the outbreak timeline to relive the evolution and how it wound up in Vermont. The first report came out on Dec. 31 in China, calling it a “viral pneumonia,” according to who.int. Then, on New Year’s Day 2020  (U.S.), the U.S.-based World Health Organization requested information on the cluster of “atypical pneumonia cases.” 

After that, this mysterious ailment proliferated. By Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the virus a  “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” It started to leap outside its bounds, and eight cases of human-to-human spread were reported in four countries: Japan, Germany, Vietnam, and the United States.

All the while, back in Vermont, I watched events unfold from my devices. We talked about it at work. We didn’t expect it to actually travel from urban centers to our rural sanctuary, at least not at first. We pushed aside the distraction and went about our daily tasks. I had enrolled in a monthly four-part professional training workshop, which started in early January at a crowded conference at the Lake Morey Inn. It was a luxury. I still have a commemorative notepad to remind myself of the camaraderie and delicious banquet from the day-long lecture. I remember the scrumptious chicken and vegetables followed by chocolate cake. It was to be one of my last restaurant meals for the next year. I think I only went to one restaurant after that — The Wayside. That was delicious, too.

Then, in February, I attended the second lecture, but this time I joined a small group who gathered at an elementary school and watched remotely to avoid the commute. There were now cases in 31 countries, with 19 in the United States, but not Vermont. We started making sure we were sitting sufficiently far apart from each other. We weren’t in full prevention mode, but it had started.

And, on the final in-person workshop on March 13, we could barely pay attention to the program because of unfolding emergency health news. The first case arrived in Vermont on March 7.  Then, COVID-19 was named a worldwide pandemic on March 11. We whispered during breaks about the outside atmosphere. We turned our attention to the news on our phones and messages from friends. Local stores had begun to sell out of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. “My friend says CVS on the Barre-Montpelier Road still has toilet paper,” someone reported to the group. Several workshop attendees went to the stores to get supplies during the lunch break. Since it was a Friday, we all expected a major run on supplies after work. I stayed in and ate my BYO lunch, but later regretted it. The others came back reporting what they stocked up on, including toilet paper, paper towels, Clorox wipes, gloves, but also stacks and stacks of frozen pizza and canned goods, and wine, comfort food, and stacks of miscellaneous snacks. It wasn’t quite panic, but it kind of was.

Also that afternoon, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation declaring a public emergency about coronavirus. And Vermont Gov. Phil Scott issued a declaration of a state of emergency in which he literally called out the National Guard. This directive was followed by multiple executive orders in the ensuing days. Those directives included an order for school boards and districts to plan a continuity of education,  a prohibition of mass gatherings (including theaters, bars, and gyms), a prohibition of restaurants to serve food indoors, a suspension of in-person transactions at the Department of Motor Vehicles, delivery and takeout of alcoholic beverages, suspension of non-essential surgeries, closure of close-contact businesses, and an order to work from home for all businesses and nonprofits, among others. And, finally for us educators, the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, which necessitated schools close down for in-person instruction. 

Each and every one of these orders hit Vermonters over just a few days, from March 13 to March 18. Meanwhile, stores were sold out of necessities and cleaning supplies and the streets became suddenly dark and bare. But we thought it was what we had to do in order to stay safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19, which began killing people in huge numbers and grew at an alarming rate, especially in New York City, over the spring. So to get COVID-19 is a BIG DEAL, even if it isn’t.

Montpelier’s Capital Theater posted this message during the COVID 19 ‘Stay Safe’ lockdown. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Finally summer came and the rate slowed. Gov. Scott allowed Vermonters to start “opening the spigot.” Hair salons reopened, so did gyms, the farmers market, restaurants for outdoor seating, and other things.

In the fall, schools opened to in-person classes with new protocols in place. One of the main safety screening measures was to take everyone’s temperature before they could get on the bus or enter school. Classes were arranged in “pods,” which prevented a certain amount of intermingling among classes. All was better for a while in Central Vermont. 

Then, after Halloween and late fall set in, the number of cases rose in Vermont. Not as bad as in other states, but the numbers still rose. By Christmas, I joined the ranks of the 81 cases reported in Montpelier between March 5 and December 23, 2020. Since I had made it without catching COVID so far, I didn’t expect to get it at all. I followed the guidelines for the most part. I used anti-bacterial wipes in my car, kitchen, and bathroom. I went to JoAnn’s Fabrics, got a new sewing machine, and made dozens of cloth masks. I stayed away from people as much as I could. I avoided restaurants. I didn’t sing in public. What the heck? 

Fallout of a Positive Test

Back to Dec. 27, when I learned I had  COVID-19. In my mind, the first order of business was to let people close to me know I tested positive. I immediately notified my employers. Then I notified anyone I visited, or met with, or who met with me for more than a few minutes. The people I had close contacts with before and during my contagious period were friends and non-school colleagues.

Similarly to how I reacted on Christmas Eve when I got the news I had had a close contact with a person infected with COVID-19, I passed the night in a restless state. Getting COVID — being a data point in the biggest story of the worldwide news cycle — triggered a rash of emotions and thoughts. I noticed most people in Vermont keep this a secret. I mean, nobody ever found out who “person zero” was in the ice rink outbreak — at least not officially in public. Or who, exactly, contracted it at local schools. This was merely whispered among colleagues. Questions plagued me. Should I have kept it a secret? Why should it be a secret? Will I die? Should I write my will? Will I be shunned by everyone? To quell the questions, I intermittently read news, pop culture garbage, and scientific facts about coronavirus throughout the night on my phone.

On Monday morning, a contact tracer named Tom called. He asked if I knew why he was calling. “Because I tested positive?” I took a wild guess. He asked me all about where I worked, how I felt, and the nature of my symptoms. 

I reported to Tom that my symptoms had been mild so far. It started out Christmas Eve Eve with me not wanting to get out of bed for hours and suffering a slight runny nose. The fatigue and runny nose continued as a mild nasal and chest congestion sank in. Also unmentionable gastrointestinal symptoms plagued me most of the time. But I never had a fever higher than 99 degrees, which the Centers for Disease Control don’t even consider a fever. 

Then, Tom told me to compile a list of all the people I had close contact with in the past week — beginning two days after my own close contact. He said we would hang up, and I was to call back with names and numbers of contacts. “You’ll call back, right?” He asked.

I gathered the information and called him back. We ended our conversation with a few wrap-up questions. Did I want a pulse oximeter to test my blood oxygen levels? Did I want to report my symptoms daily to the Department of Health? “Yes,” I said, to all of it.

Now a bunch of my friends and colleagues had to worry, get tests, isolate, etc. because of me and stupid COVID-19.  I felt guilty. Some tests started to roll in negative by Dec. 31, but I have not yet heard from everyone.

I like to think “everything happens for a reason,” implying good comes out of suffering. But on New Year’s Eve, as I write this, my silver lining point of view is overshadowed. I struggle to focus on the benefits this situation affords. From a health standpoint, I read about lasting side effects of contracting COVID-19. These include fatigue, joint pain, depression, cardiovascular inflammation, rash, hair loss, vision impairment, sleep issues, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, loss of taste and smell. 

I assume the hard part is almost over for me for now, though. Tom said I am considered free to go back into the world Jan. 2 as long as I don’t have a fever and my symptoms are better (I don’t and they are, knock on wood). I am then considered “safe.”

But, most of all, Happy New Year, everyone. My wish is for everyone to stay safe. You can have COVID even if you don’t have a fever. You won’t ever understand how important your friends and colleagues are to you until you put them in danger. Even if you didn’t mean to. You are trying to be close to them because you love them. But show them you love them this year by staying away. Protect your friends and loved ones. GOODBYE 2020, and let’s all make 2021 the best year possible.

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Writer, photographer and editor with The Bridge on and off since 2014. Managing editor of The Bridge from 2014 to 2017. Writer and editor for the Caledonian Record. Correspondent and contributing writer for The Barre Montpelier Times Argus, Burlington Free Press, Green Mountain Trading Post, North Star Monthly, Science Magazine, Country Woman, Vermont Magazine, The Northland Journal, and other publications. English teacher and Interventionist in the Montpelier Roxbury School district. Born in Montpelier.