It was 3:21 in the morning when all my devices awoke to a flurry of emails and text messages. I was sound asleep, exhausted after a long day, nurturing what I thought was a common cold. I didn’t feel sick, but I felt tired and groggy all day long. When I woke up later, I hadn’t yet looked at my devices when my wife told me that her test results had come back. Her COVID-19 test, taken little more than 12 hours earlier, came back inconclusive.
More than a week ago, our younger son Niels woke up on Sunday morning and felt slightly hot. We took his temperature and decided to keep an eye on him and keep him home from daycare for the next couple of days. Over the day, he’d develop a fever, with the temperature topping out at 39.6 C. An Ibuprofen before bedtime and a few hours of sleep later, Monday morning presented itself with a seemingly healthy child: the fever had gone, as had the tiredness of the day before. We still took him to see a doctor to make sure he’s ok and decided to keep him home for at least another day unless he developed symptoms again. The doctor took his temperature and sent us on our way. Just a common cold.
On Wednesday, after being well for two days, he went back to daycare. My wife and I were tired after spending two days working while taking care of Niels, but we had gotten used to that after a long year with COVID-19. That Wednesday evening, my wife mentioned that she felt a little unwell and might be getting sick. Thursday morning, she had a slightly elevated temperature, but the kids were alright. Again, this came as no surprise: kids bring home a bug from daycare, spend one or two days “sick”, and a couple of days later the infection would get my wife. I knew it was a matter of time until I would be sick as well, but it was just a common cold. No need to worry.
We are fortunate enough to work from home, so at least we didn’t have to worry about how to get work done, let alone the nightmare of taking public transport to work. This made it easy for us to avoid close calls for the past year, as the only outside interaction we usually have is a weekly shopping trip to get groceries, which is always done by a single person to reduce the risk of exposure. That’s why, when I briefly considered whether we should get tested for COVID-19, I decided that it wasn’t necessary: there was no cough, no respiratory problems, no loss of taste or smell, just a single day of light fever. I’m not qualified to do a differential diagnosis, but then the doctor we took Niels to also didn’t raise an alarm. None of our Exposure Tracking apps had raised even a single low-risk contact in previous weeks, despite the county having a high incidence for 3 months now. Just a common cold. No need to worry.
On Friday evening, that common cold had gotten me as well. I felt tired, exhausted, and I had the feeling of getting sick. Sure enough, on Saturday morning I woke up to a temperature of 38.3 C, which would climb to 38.7 C during the day. My wife took over weekly grocery duty as she was feeling well again, while I stayed home with the kids. On Sunday morning, my temperature was back to normal, and apart from being exhausted after a long week I felt fine. It was just another common cold one of our kids brought home from daycare, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Over the past year, we’ve had many encounters with COVID-19. I’ve seen the havoc it wreaked in my home country of Italy, including my home town which is a touristy area. My sister works in healthcare in South Tyrol and hasn’t really had time off since the situation got crazy in March of 2020. My mother, who had retired as a professional nurse months earlier, came out of retirement to work in testing for a large manufacturing company in our home town. Every week, she’d administer hundreds of tests, sometimes catching tens of infected people in a single day in a small town of a few thousand people.
My wife lost her grandmother to COVID-19 late last year. She was old, suffering from diabetes and dementia, so when we were told that there was an outbreak in the care facility that she lived in, we knew it was just a matter of time. We knew that the chances of survival were next to none, and a few days later she became one of the many dead of this pandemic. There was no big funeral, and it will take a while until we can visit her grave to get some closure and say our goodbyes, but she’s the only family member we lost to the pandemic.
We’ve seen some close calls as well. As we were getting ready for an anniversary lunch last year, Nikola’s Kindergarten called us with the information that he’d have to quarantine. A teacher was infected through no fault of her own, and they’d close the facility for a few weeks until the outbreak was over. All kids and staff were tested multiple times during their two-week quarantine, and nobody tested positive or showed any symptoms of infection. A couple of weeks of quarantine later, kindergarten was reopened and the kids returned. The staff member eventually recovered, as did her family (her husband and two kids tested positive as well), but it was a close call. It would be months before the staff member returned, and even then she was still suffering from some long-term effects of the disease, despite it being a light case: none of the family were hospitalised and recovered at home.
My wife and I were joking about how the impacts seemed to come closer every once in a while, but they’d always miss us. The Wednesday when Niels went back to daycare, two kids were picked up from Nikola’s Kindergarten after potential exposure. A couple of days later we would know that their siblings were in the same daycare as Niels, but in a different pod. A staff member tested positive, and the parents picked up their other kids as a precaution. This shows the danger of an infection in child care centers: they have siblings that attend child care as well, and this quickly snowballs into something way larger. We decided to keep a close eye on things, but there was no need to worry: our daycare ensures that the different pods don’t have contact, including the employees. None of the other employees tested positive, but we have no information on how many were tested to begin with.
When my phone rang on Tuesday and caller ID showed that Niels’ daycare was calling, I knew that they’d ask me to pick him up. The only unknown is the reason for having to pick him up. A minute later, my wife had abruptly left the meeting she was in and I was getting ready. Apparently, there was a case in the group and now it would be Niels’ turn to quarantine. We decided to pick Nikola up from Kindergarten and keep him home during Niels’ quarantine. For one, this reduces the risk to other kids in Kindergarten, but it also makes it easier for us as I can rely on his help in keeping Niels entertained. 24 hours later, we would know that he was the only family member that wasn’t infected.
As we pondered what was going on and my wife was checking the various Whatsapp groups for information, we received more information on the positive case. A child that Niels came in contact with on Wednesday and Thursday (called C1 hereafter) after being sick tested positive. Apparently, their older sibling (C2) showed symptoms on Saturday, the same day I had a light fever. They got tested and the entire family tested positive. Turns out, the sibling had a single day of light fever, and the parents felt extremely tired and fatigued.
I cursed for the next 15 minutes while frantically filling out paperwork for tests. I blamed myself for not being careful enough. I was worried that we all missed the signs of an infection and have put other people at risk. While it wasn’t confirmed, the timeline just lined up too perfectly:
- On the 17th, Niels showed symptoms.
- On the 20th and 21st, he returned to daycare and came into contact with C1 in their group.
- On the 21st, my wife showed symptoms.
- On the 23rd, C2 and I showed symptoms.
- Sometime after the 23rd, C1 and C2 were tested along with their parents.
- On the 26th, we got word that C1 tested positive and decided to get tested as well.
We had to wait a little bit before we could get tested. People with symptoms can only get tested during certain hours, so we kept occupied until it was time to leave. We waited for about 10 minutes, got our swabs done, and went home. We expected to quarantine for a couple of days while waiting for results and started making arrangements. Until we had results, we could do nothing but wait.
When my wife told me her test was inconclusive, I was worried. What did it mean? Then I realised that the results came back quicker than I thought. Was there some mistake and we’d have to get tested again? I grabbed my phone and saw a flurry of text messages and emails announcing results. I opened them up one by one. Nikola was negative, with the PCR test not detecting any N-genes or E-genes. Niels was also negative, but showed N-genes on the test that put him in the negative range. I opened mine and was greeted by a red box:
I cursed some more. Then, after grabbing breakfast I talked to my sister to make sense of the results. From what I gathered, it looks like while Niels’ test was negative, he was infected, which aligns with him having symptoms first. My wife’s test was inconclusive as the measured values are right in between the ranges for negative and positive. For all intents and purposes, she was infected but getting better, which also aligns with her having symptoms. Having been infected last, it also made sense that my test was still positive. In all of this Nikola was the only one that escaped a bout with COVID-19.
We informed everyone we came in contact with over the past two weeks, which thanks to isolating as much as we can, was a total of two people outside of our household and child care institutions. Yet the question remains: how did we get infected? We’ll never know for sure, but if we look back from the timeline above, there’s a single event that stands out:
On January 12th, Niels had an appointment with an optometrist to get new prescription glasses. Since the appointment was in the heart of Munich, we decided to take public transport to avoid traffic. A few stops after getting on, somebody else sat across from her with their FFP-2 mask on. Right after sitting down, they took off their mask, blew their nose, and put their mask back on. While my wife was wearing her FFP-2 mask, Niels did not have such protection as there are no FFP-2 masks that fit him. He does have a Paw Patrol mask that my wife made for him, but that most likely wouldn’t have helped him.
It looks like that episode might have been our first contact with the virus. Five days later, the symptoms started and the situation unravelled. Of course it’s possible that we were infected through other means, but this looks like a likely vector.
It’s too early to talk about symptoms, long-term effects, or when we will consider ourselves fully recovered. But it’s not too early to talk about the danger this pandemic poses. A lot of talk has focussed on whether children drive infections, whether schools and child care centers are potential hotspots. Looking at our scenario, I would absolutely say that they drive infections, and why wouldn’t they? From one infected person, we have at least 6 more people confirmed infected. I don’t know how many people have been quarantined, and I don’t know how many more have tested positive, possibly without ever showing symptoms. Test protocols call for quarantined people to be tested at the end of quarantine, which means that they’ll most likely test negative and nobody will question whether they had been infected. Since we’re talking about children, they can’t be isolated during quarantine. They will potentially infect their parents, and unless they interpret being fatigued as a potential sign, there’s no requirement for them to quarantine or even get tested.
If we hadn’t been tested out of precaution, my wife, Nikola, and I would’ve been free to live our normal lives. Niels would be quarantined, test negative at the end, and our infections would’ve gone unnoticed, potentially contributing to the spread. It’s clear that testing protocols are not nearly sufficient to prevent widespread community infection, and the numbers leading up to Christmas would confirm this.
When deciding whether to get tested, I looked at typical symptoms. Fever, cough, runny nose, fatigue, loss of taste and smell. I had elevated temperature, but didn’t feel more fatigued than in previous weeks. We had felt worse a couple of times the previous years, and the tests we took then always came back negative. This looked like a common cold, but it could’ve very well killed someone.
In hindsight, there’s one thing we should’ve done different in our routine: we should’ve gotten tested at the first sign of symptoms, even if it’s just a single symptom from the long list that COVID-19 comes with. By the time we saw a connection between the elevated temperature and our fatigue, it was too late. The rest worked as well as it could, and we’ll continue doing it: we’ll continue to isolate as much as we can, we’ll continue to wear masks when going outside, we’ll continue to do a single weekly shopping trip to reduce exposure.
The lesson I learned from this is simple: we can do a lot to protect ourselves, but it won’t be enough if the people around you don’t do the same. More than ever, we need to protect each other, and not just think of ourselves. And if you have a single symptom, get tested. It’s better to get tested and get a negative result, than not getting tested and infecting the people you love.