Our COVID reporter got COVID. He was fully vaccinated. Here's what happened
It started Thursday night with a slight pain in the shoulders that spread to the back of the neck. Headaches soon joined the party.
Within half an hour I was so cold that I wrapped myself in a duvet on one of the warmest nights of the year.
After dodging him for two and a half years, it was finally my turn. I was sick with COVID-19. And it grabbed a wallop.
This is the story of how I got the virus and dealt with it in quarantine over the weekend of July 4th.
My case comes as a new vaccine-resistant offshoot of the Omicron variant -- the BA.5 subvariant -- is becoming the dominant strain in the US.
But it takes a process called genome sequencing to determine a specific variant, so I don't know if it's BA.5, which accounted for 53% of all new cases in the US at the end of June. Still, it was likely a form of omicron that spreads easily but has less severe consequences. After omicron's initial surge in December and January, key metrics like hospitalizations, ICU admissions, ventilator use, and deaths in New Jersey have hovered pretty much at the same level for at least two months without wild swings. There were 885 with COVID in hospitals in New Jersey as of Tuesday night, a far cry from the more than 6,000 a day at the peak of the Omicron wave in January.
When my symptoms started, it had been 850 days since the first case of coronavirus in New Jersey. I had spent much of that time writing more than 300 articles documenting the pandemic. But writing about it and experiencing the symptoms firsthand are two different things.
Scott Fallon, writer for USA Today Network New Jersey
My symptoms began Thursday night, hours after my wife, young daughter, and I landed from a week-long stay at Disney World in New Jersey, where it soon became clear I was bringing home more than mouse-eared bats.
A friend of ours who was staying at the same hotel tested positive earlier in the week. But our interactions with him have been infrequent and mostly brief.
My best guess is that I caught COVID simply by packing a ton of tourists from around the world onto buses, monorails and rides and wasn't as vigilant as I was during most of the pandemic.
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Here's what I did wrong: I wasn't wearing an N95 or KN95 mask, which prevents the wearer from catching the virus. The ones we had were tight, hurt our ears, and felt suffocating in the scorching Florida sun. Instead, I wore a much less protective paper mask.
I also didn't wear my mask indoors as much as I should have. I only put one on when it was very busy. I plead guilty to COVID fatigue.
I'm 46, relatively healthy and active. I am fully vaccinated and had a booster shot in December - all developed before we knew anything about Omicron subvariants.
A healthcare friend told me that the doctors she works with only prescribe the COVID drug Paxlovid to immunocompromised people. So I did what most people do these days - I did it with a sizeable dose of Tylenol and Gatorade.
We had landed at Newark Liberty on Thursday afternoon and I felt fine for several hours.
But around 9pm I started getting chills. I went to bed early and woke up shaking a few hours later. I took my temperature. It was 101 - not the highest in the world, but it's been a long time since I've had a fever.
It was next to impossible to go back to sleep. My skin was so hot it felt like frying Taylor ham on it.
I hadn't felt this sick in years.
I didn't want to get out of bed. My body felt incredibly weak. Walking across the room alone required serious effort.
Half an hour later I put a rapid test swab through both nostrils. Two stripes. And the one that indicates infection was dark when often faded.
The first thing I did was email and text everyone I had come into contact with the previous day — a source I met at the Orlando airport, family members who shared an apartment with us at Disney , and half a dozen neighbors who had welcomed me at home the night before.
My fever rose to 102.7 in the afternoon. But after a long nap, the fever subsided and I felt better. The chills were gone.
I slept 12 hours straight. As a kind of insomniac, I didn't even consider myself capable.
My temp hovered around 101 most of the day. I thought I had an extra bottle of Tylenol in the back of the medicine cabinet. It turned out to be the kid type. So I chewed down gum-flavored paracetamol. Disgusting at first, but it grew on me.
Luckily my wife and daughter replenished the adult supply. They were great at preparing meals for me, leaving them by the bedroom door and cheering me up with conversations in the hallway. The same was true of my neighbors, some of whom volunteered to shop for me.
My temperature dropped below 100 for the first time.
And then jealousy set in.
I was in quarantine for the weekend of July 4th, my favorite time of year when the days are long and life is easy. I firmly believe that you must count every summer day before the cold and gray descend upon us. And I'm stuck inside.
To make matters worse, my apartment is directly above a swimming pool where my neighbors were throwing parties. I opened the window and heard the screeching of children splashing around, including my own.
I reminded myself that that was a small price to pay compared to the 34,000 New Jerseyers who never made it past quarantine.
But if that happens again, please God let it happen on a dreary week in January, when the rest of New Jersey is just as miserable.
But not for me.
I did a quick test in the morning and it was positive. I also got a small cough - the first sign that this virus had entered my lungs. It wore off as the day progressed.
I reviewed a tool developed by the Centers for Disease Control called the "COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation Calculator." It indicated that I could leave my apartment in two days because my fever had subsided.
So I thought of that day when fireworks danced in the sky and the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid seeped through my bedroom window.
My wife and daughter left in the morning for a planned stay at my in-laws' house.
And that meant I could get out of my bedroom for the first time in almost a week. It wasn't exactly deGaulle marching under the Arc de Triomphe, but I'd be lying if stepping into my kitchen didn't feel liberating.
I still felt tired, but the cough was almost gone and the fever seemed like a distant memory.
I celebrated the end of my quarantine by putting on a mask and taking out the trash. I then went downstairs to do a load of laundry. We dream big in my household.
I also thought of a conversation I had last year with Chris Aldrich, a Toms River firefighter who contracted a severe case of COVID despite being fully vaccinated.
"If I hadn't been vaccinated, it would have been much, much worse," he told me last June. "I firmly believe that it saved my life."
My immunity to the vaccines has undoubtedly waned. And it's still unclear how effective these antibodies are against all of these omicron subvariants. But like Aldrich, I'm glad I have her.
I hear some people splashing into the pool from my window. I will continue to be cautious over the next few days. There's plenty of time to grab summer by the horns.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Our COVID reporter got COVID. It blew him away
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