I Took A COVID-19 Test During A News Story. To My Surprise, It Came Back Positive.

Aug 5, 2020

Editor’s note: This is a behind-the-scenes account on how a KSJD News story impacted a reporter. Austin Cope is an independent reporter who produces content on a contract basis for KSJD, and is a former Morning Edition host for the station.

In early June, I wrote a feature story about Montezuma County’s first free COVID-19 testing clinic. On June 3, I drove out to the fairgrounds, recorded my test as it happened, and interviewed the county officials in charge of the event. Afterwards, I went back home, wrote and recorded the story, edited the audio, and almost forgot I would receive my test results.

So, when I got a phone call two days later from Christa Zubieta, a nurse and contact tracer with the Montezuma County Public Health Department, I thought she was calling with further information, or maybe some feedback about my story. After she introduced herself, I asked how I could help her.

“Well, the reason I’m calling is that your test actually came back positive,” she said. “Have you been showing any symptoms?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said, feeling a pang of confusion and shock. As I racked my brain to remember if I’d shown symptoms, I could hardly believe I was one of the approximately 50 people in the county who had tested positive since March. I had felt fine since my test, and for the whole time leading up to it. As Zubieta asked me a long list of questions about my symptoms — whether I had fever, chills, body aches, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, sneezing, or coughing — I answered “no” to each one. Though I had occasional congestion and sneezing fits for the past several weeks, I was sure it had just been allergies.

“We’ve been finding that many people, especially people your age, have had very mild cases or are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers,” she said, explaining that the data was still limited and that more research was needed. “You may be one of those cases, but you should start monitoring your symptoms just in case.”

As we spoke, I quickly began to worry that I had also infected my parents and grandmother, all of whom I live with. But part of Zubieta’s job was also to do contact tracing. Per CDC guidelines, the health department would consider people “potentially exposed” if they had been in contact with me for at least 15 minutes, at a distance of less than six feet, within a week before my test. Luckily for the community, those people only included my immediate family members. I told them about my results after I got off the phone with Zubieta, and she called them later to share more details. I had to explicitly tell her that she could identify me as the carrier — otherwise the health department was bound by strict privacy laws. They wouldn’t have even told my own family members that I was the person who exposed them.

As my family and I soon found out, my positive test had immediate repercussions for our daily life. According to health department regulations, I had to self-isolate, meaning I couldn’t come into contact with anyone at home or in the community. My parents and I decided I could stay in their camp trailer in the driveway, which they connected to water and electricity. The health department also recommended I wear a mask whenever I went in the house, and avoid being in the same room with anyone. My family had similar restrictions, and none of us were allowed to leave the house for a 10- to 14-day period following my test. The health department even sent us all official letters outlining the terms of my isolation and my family’s quarantine — including potential legal enforcement if we violated it. The last part didn’t concern me too much — I wasn’t planning on leaving the house, and the health department hasn’t publicly indicated that their COVID-19-related enforcement is very strict — but the letter still drove home the seriousness of it all.

When I told my boss, my co-workers, and a handful of friends and neighbors about my test results and resulting isolation, they almost all asked one immediate question (after asking how I felt, of course): how did I get infected? I was completely stumped on the answer. I had hardly left the house since March, and when I had, I’d only been to the grocery store, or, very occasionally, to the radio station. Otherwise, I had been working remotely, and had also been recovering from a sprained ankle, which limited my outdoor recreation options. In the week before my test (the generally accepted window of time to become infected), I had only visited the grocery store (where usually about a third to half of the other people were not wearing masks) and the radio station (where, for less than 15 minutes, I had been in the same room but more than six feet away from a colleague who was wearing a mask). Aside from that, it could have come from one of my immediate family members, but the chances of them, who are all over 55, being asymptomatic carriers were low. And, a few days later, they took tests themselves, which all came back negative. So there was no clear answer.

I eventually realized I would probably never know where I had gotten the virus. It drove home the idea of “community spread” – which, according to the CDC, means that “people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.” The community had been gradually reopening, and more people were out of the house — many of them without masks. The virus was clearly spreading in ways nobody could predict, and that nobody, including me, could fully escape.

Some of my friends and co-workers also asked me a second question: was the test flawed? My initial lack of symptoms also made me wonder that too. The next time I spoke to Zubieta, I asked her what chances might be for a false positive result. But according to further information she sent me, it sounded like the chances were low. Two days later, the test’s accuracy became less of a question for me. I began having occasional coughing fits, fatigue, body aches, and minor shortness of breath. But part of me even wondered if I was just imagining them. I didn’t have a fever, a loss of taste or smell, or many of the other commonly-reported COVID symptoms. Was my mind (or the government!) playing tricks on me?

As the days progressed, my symptoms became more and more clear. They started to come in waves: for several hours I would feel mostly fine, and then a wave of fatigue, shortness of breath, and a sore throat would come over me. I took a few days off of work as my symptoms intensified. I had expected COVID symptoms to feel like a cold or the flu, but for me, they were slightly different — in some ways more subtle, but in other ways harsher, less familiar. Since they came and went in severity, it was hard to fully describe how they felt. But it was clear to me that, even though it wasn’t serious, I had never been infected with a virus like this before.

The effects on me also weren’t only physical. The fatigue made me feel depressed; the shortness of breath made me feel anxious, and the isolation had a noticeable effect on my mind. I would often get distracted and impatient as I alternated between reading, listening to podcasts, or scrolling through social media — all inside my parents’ camp trailer. As I spent long hours in solitude, I realized that I wasn’t only experiencing the virus; I was also coming to terms with many of the events happening in the country: an out-of-control pandemic, protests over police and institutional racism, and some of the highest national anger and tension that I had seen in my lifetime. Having the virus was a daily reminder that I was a part of everything happening in the world, and that, despite my isolation, I couldn’t escape from any of it. Being sick didn’t make me want to avoid these issues, as I thought it might — in fact, it made them feel even more critical, and I felt even more responsible to help address them. But then I remembered it was technically illegal for me to leave the house. So I tried to channel my energy into reading, writing, and trying to understand what was going on in the world. But the lack of face-to-face contact with anyone made it all feel abstract and confusing.

As the quarantine period continued, my family and I entered a routine, of sorts. At first, my parents brought me meals in the camper, but eventually we started to eat our dinners on the patio, sitting as far apart as we could from one other. My parents ordered groceries online and drove to the store to have them loaded in the car. Whenever I went into the house, I wore a mask, stayed socially distant, washed my hands often, and sanitized everything I touched.

My worst symptoms came between five and seven days after I received my test results. I have a clear memory of sitting on my parents’ porch near sunset, wearing a mask, with a sore throat starting to come on and waves of aches shooting through my body. As I thought about the millions of others with worse cases than my own, and the more than 100,000 people who had died, I felt confused, depressed, and anxious. I knew my case wasn’t serious, and I knew in my heart that I and my family were going to be ok, but I still felt the weight of the pandemic in ways I knew I never would have before contracting the virus.

As I sat there with my head hung, my dad crossed the porch to put a hand on my shoulder. I wanted so badly to let him keep it there, to accept his gesture of love and support, but I knew I shouldn’t. I pulled away, telling him I really appreciated it, but I didn’t want to get him sick. Like any dad, he understood. But that moment illustrated the impact the virus was having on my life. While I knew how lucky I was to have the love, care, and support of my family, I also knew that I couldn’t fully let my guard down, because of the risk of spreading the virus to the people I loved the most.

Two weeks after my test, Zubieta called me again to check in. By then, my symptoms had reduced, and I had begun working remotely again. But the virus wasn’t entirely gone. Though I didn’t feel any more fatigue, body aches, or fever, I still had a lingering cough and an occasional sore throat. Zubieta said the worst of my infection had likely passed, and that based on the health department’s most up-to-date knowledge of the virus, the chances of me being contagious were very low. Legally, my family could leave their quarantine, and I could end my isolation period. However, I still wanted to be careful, and she agreed. I spent another 10 days at home, wearing a mask near my family, washing my hands as often as possible, and staying socially distant from everyone at home—especially my 86-year-old grandmother. On June 25, I took a second COVID-19 test at another county testing clinic. I was afraid that it would come back positive, and that I would have to restart the whole isolation process. But luckily, I had fought it off — the test was negative.

Since the end of June, I’ve restarted certain parts of my life: sleeping in my own room, cooking meals for my family, and going out in public again. As I look back on the experience, I know that I am incredibly lucky for many reasons. First and foremost, I had a very mild case: I didn’t have to be hospitalized; my family wasn’t infected; and my parents shared love, support, home-cooked meals, and a comfortable place to spend my isolation period. I was also able to continue doing my job remotely without fear of infecting my coworkers or losing my job. I know that many people in my community — and in the world at large — do not have these privileges. 

Austin Cope, after learning his second COVID-19 test came back negative, sits inside of the camp trailer where he self-isolated.
Credit Courtesy of Frank Cope

Many, if not most, of the cases we hear about in the news are the serious ones — people who are placed on ventilators, people who face discrimination, unemployment, or catastrophic financial consequences from the virus, people who die. Their stories are important — arguably much more important than mine. However, there are also millions of cases that have turned out like mine, with mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and have only affected people’s lives for two to three weeks, if that. My case was like one of those millions, but so far, everyone I’ve spoken to about it has been very curious — and concerned — when I tell them about my experience. Their minds clearly jump to those terrible cases, thinking that I’ve weathered a terrible storm in my life. I have to explain over and over that I was fine; my case was mild; I was lucky, and it could have been much worse.

I know I’m also lucky to be able to share my story with little chance for consequences. People who get infected can at times face stigma based on their race, age, or economic conditions. Folks have encountered fallout from their jobs, lost their housing, or faced targeting or criticism by members of the community. Because of this stigma, I think it’s important that those of us who have had mild cases of COVID-19 — and have the privilege to safely share our stories — talk about it as well. This virus is affecting us all, and, like it or not, we are in it together.

As the pandemic continues, I can now go out in public with slightly less worry that I’ll become infected myself. Zubieta shared a study that suggested that my low viral load may give me partial immunity, and said I would likely be less prone to infection for at least the next few months. But because scientists know so little about the virus, it is still unclear if I could get infected again. So, I’m still careful, and I still remember that my family and most of my community are at risk.

I wish I could conclude with some kind of profound life lesson about my experience — to be able to give this piece a title like, “I Caught Coronavirus And This Is How It Changed My Life,” or “Top 10 Things I Learned From Catching COVID-19.” But honestly, my life isn’t too different than it was before. More than anything, I’m living with a newfound respect for how real this virus actually is. Before June, the case numbers and stories of people infected used to feel abstract — important, but not personally so. After having the virus, I know that I am now part of those case numbers, and that my story is part of the story of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wonder if I’ll tell my grandchildren about it someday.

My experience with the virus has also made me even more careful when it comes to preventing its spread. I want to confront the people who openly smirk or chuckle at me when I wear a mask in the grocery store (so far, all of them have been 30- to 45-year-old white men, not wearing masks, who seem to be surprised at my decision to wear one). I want to tell them how close I came to infecting my parents and grandmother, and how close I could have been to infecting them as well. Maybe it was one of those guys who passed the virus to me in the first place — I don’t know.

It’s clear, however, that wearing a mask helps control infections, and the people who mock them either don’t understand, don’t care, or both. My own anger and frustration with the people who don’t take the virus seriously lies close to the surface. They might tell me not to “live in fear,” but I would prefer to have that conversation with them after they spend a few weeks in isolation — and deal with a high chance of infecting their loved ones as well.

So, despite catching COVID-19, my recovery, and my eventual negative test, I still take the virus seriously. Wearing a mask doesn’t bother me too much, and it simply feels like the right thing to do. The mounting case numbers mean more to me now than they had before, and I don’t feel afraid to talk openly about it. And, as I think it’s safe to say now, I speak from experience.