Apoorva Mandavilli has covered the coronavirus since the pandemic started. But contracting the virus herself taught her something no research paper could.
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Two years after the coronavirus became the focus of all of my coverage as a science reporter for The Times (and all of my thoughts every waking hour), it happened: I tested positive for the virus.
My case was mostly mild, as the virus generally is for any healthy 40-something individual. But the experience nevertheless gave me perspective I would not have gained from reading scientific papers or interviewing experts.
Over the past two years, I have written hundreds of articles about the coronavirus — about asymptomatic infections, tests, our body’s immune defenses, breakthrough infections and boosters. I was interviewed myself dozens of times to answer questions about the disease, the pandemic and the U.S. response to the virus.
But all along, my relationship with the virus stayed academic, impersonal. Even when the Delta variant swept through India and I lay sleepless, worrying about my parents, it was still not quite at my door.
To be honest, I’m surprised it took as long as it did for me to catch Covid. As someone who covers infectious diseases, I’m not squeamish about pathogens, and my family and I have taken some risks during the pandemic. My husband teaches squash indoors, often without a mask, my children have been attending school in person — albeit masked — since the fall of 2020 and I’ve traveled on airplanes, including on a 20-hour journey to India in the thick of the Omicron surge.
But we are all vaccinated and boosted (except for my 10-year-old daughter, who doesn’t yet qualify for a booster) and relatively healthy, so we knew that while we might develop some symptoms if we were to get Covid, we would most likely recover quickly. We were careful, especially around vulnerable people, such as my mother-in-law and friends who have young children.
Over an (indoor) dinner in early March, a friend and I marveled at how our families had escaped Covid. The virus seemed to be in retreat and cases in New York City were lower than they had been for months. We thought we were in the clear.
I should have known I was tempting fate.
Three days later, I found an email in my spam folder from the city’s school testing program alerting me that my son had tested positive for the virus. I immediately informed the school. That evening, a friendly man working for the city called to give me some information. He began with “Covid is a disease caused by a virus called the coronavirus.” It was nearly dinnertime, and I was still finishing up my story — on the science of the coronavirus, of course — so I asked if we could skip ahead. But he was required to go through every bit of detail about the disease, the symptoms and the quarantine protocol.
After 16 minutes of this one-sided discourse, he asked me if I had any questions. I didn’t, and I am fortunate enough not to need the city’s quarantine accommodation or free supplies.
That was Thursday, March 10. Looking back, my husband felt under the weather earlier that week, but a rapid test said he was virus free. My son, too, had had a scratchy throat, but had chalked it up to seasonal allergies. Just like the experts I have interviewed have said, the symptoms were indistinguishable.
Though my rapid test turned up negative, I decided to act as if I had Covid. I alerted my co-workers. I bailed on an outing with friends. My children canceled all their activities. I eventually did test positive.
On Friday night, my daughter developed a low-grade fever but was full of bounce again by the next morning. As expected, we adults were the most affected. I was taken over by a heavy cold and an unrelenting malaise. By the following Wednesday, I was too sick to work. I learned that even those with a mild case can experience serious symptoms.
I am privileged to have the luxury to work from home when I feel able and to take time off when I don’t. And I am lucky, too, that my children are old enough not to need constant care and that they attend a school that accommodates remote learning. I knew even before I had Covid that the disease has a hugely disproportionate impact on underserved communities, but as I said on the Times podcast “The Daily,” becoming sick with the virus put that knowledge into sharp perspective.
I’ve written about many diseases — H.I.V., tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy, polio — that I’ve never had. I could have done without this experience of getting Covid. I’m not worried about these symptoms persisting for too long — vaccination significantly cuts the risk of so-called long Covid — but I’m still inordinately fond of naps.
I’m thankful to have gained a richer, broader immune defense to the virus. But mostly, I am glad to have a deeper understanding of what our readers have been experiencing.
I Reported on Covid for Two Years. Then I Got It. – The New York Times