As far as I know, I had never been feared simply for being me, apart from anything I was doing. White, 5’9”, 155 pounds, I don’t cut an especially intimidating figure. What’s more, I usually do what I can to signal that there is no reason to fear me. Walking on empty city streets at night, for example, I cross to the other side or at least keep my distance if I think my approach might frighten someone. But when I was diagnosed with COVID-19, there was nothing I could do to keep people from fearing me. It was the closest I’d ever been to experiencing social stigmatization, though I don’t pretend it was anything like the much worse stigmatizations that other Americans face—for example, “living while black.”
My bout with the virus was relatively mild. I recovered quickly and easily. It helped that I am relatively young (forty-seven), that I don’t have any underlying medical conditions, and that I have regular health care, underwritten by employer-subsidized health insurance. My fever never climbed above 100 degrees and lasted no more than a day. My cough, which I had mistaken for a symptom of seasonal allergies, lasted for only a few days and went away with my fever. I had a feeling of tightness in my chest for a few weeks, but this was never excruciating, only uncomfortable; and I never had any trouble breathing. My energy was quite low for a couple weeks, but it slowly returned. Post-viral acid reflux was more persistent, but it too began to fade after a month—though not before prompting a worried triage nurse to dispatch me to the emergency room after I’d awakened Easter Monday morning dizzy and likely dehydrated. In the hospital, my EKG was normal; my bloodwork indicated that I had not had a heart attack; my chest X-ray was entirely clear; and my blood-oxygen level was 100 percent. Six hours later, I went home, shaken but deeply grateful and relieved.
In short, I was spared. There are so many horror stories to remind me how much worse it could have been.
I greatly admire the health-care workers who cared for me during this time. In the COVID-19 testing unit, one of nurses remarked to me, “This is what we’re here for”—though surely he had not anticipated a pandemic when he chose his profession. The nurse who swabbed my nasal cavity was both comforting and professional. The nurses and physicians in the emergency room were competent and clear. Only the person at the registration desk showed any fear, snapping at me that she didn’t want to touch my things when I offered my I.D. and insurance card. In the circumstances of the emergency room, she could be forgiven.
My brush with stigmatization began the following week. At the direction of my primary-care physician, I went to a local clinic for follow-up bloodwork to check my glucose, which the hospital had found to be elevated, likely because of the virus. When I made the appointment by phone and again when I arrived at the clinic, I was asked whether I lived with, or had been in contact with, anyone known to have COVID-19. The best answer seemed to be, “Yes, me!” Nevertheless, the scheduler still made the appointment and the nurse at the door of the clinic still let me into the waiting room. A few minutes later, however, she asked me to go to a different clinic, because the phlebotomist at her clinic was pregnant, and pregnant women may be at higher risk from COVID-19. Off I went. At the second clinic, the nurse at the door would not let me enter the waiting room. Instead, she called her supervisor, who called her supervisor, to figure out what to do with me. Other patients passing by looked at me with suspicion. Twenty minutes later, the nurse told me I could enter.
My primary-care physician also told me to schedule an appointment for a cardiac stress test, to ensure that my chest discomfort was a leftover from the virus and not the symptom of a heart condition. This time, after learning I had tested positive for COVID-19 within the past thirty days, the cardiology office simply refused to see me and canceled my appointment. This got me wondering: Would our health-care system treat former COVID-19 patients anywhere other than in the emergency room or intensive-care unit?