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Column: How I’ve stayed COVID-free — caution, good luck and a smart wife

A woman wearing an orange vest and a mask leans toward the open window of a car.
Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s public health director, at a COVID-19 vaccine site in Downey in spring 2021.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Infected people have coughed on me, maskless.

I didn’t get COVID.

I’ve attended parties that became super-spreader events — didn’t get COVID.

I never sheltered in place and frequently punctured my pandemic bubble during the worst waves — didn’t get the virus.

One time, the spittle of a sneezing, sniffling guy somehow went through his mask and landed on my forehead. The following day, he called to let me know what I already guessed: He had la corona.

I didn’t.

As far as I know, I’ve yet to become one of the tens of millions of Americans infected with COVID-19 over the last 2½ years. I’ve gone through the pandemic’s start, its deadly winter 2020 surge, the Delta variant and this summer’s Omicron free-for-all without ever losing my sense of taste or smell, feeling fatigued, suffering from gastrointestinal issues, or any of the other symptoms that have hit my friends, family and colleagues.

I’m the last one in my closest social circles who can say this, even though we’re all vaxxed and double-boosted. And if I ever got the disease but was asymptomatic, no one has ever accused me of transmitting the disease to them.

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So as far as I’m concerned, I’m COVID-free. Um, yay? Um, how?

There are no accurate numbers for how many people have contracted the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently lists the total number of reported cases in the United States at over 92 million, but most experts agree that’s an undercount. A May report by the CDC estimated that nearly 60% of Americans have contracted the disease. A June survey co-conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 40% of American adults reported previously having COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, based at the University of Washington, estimates that more than 80% of Americans have contracted COVID-19 at least once.

Whatever the numbers, scientists are increasingly curious about how and why COVID hits some people hard but seems to skip others. So I called up Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who has spearheaded the county’s pandemic response and has been vilified for her caution-first approach. I thought I was special, someone worthy of a case study.

“I’m not really that surprised,” Ferrer told me over the phone. “There’s still a couple of million people in L.A. County who haven’t contracted it yet. There are people who have even been asymptomatic, and that could’ve been you.”

Well, so much for my theory that I’ve always had good health because the American government secretly injected me with a serum to make me an Avenger.

But as I recounted my pandemic past to Ferrer, she congratulated me on a game plan that has so far evaded the disease: a combination of caution, good genes, luck — and especially my wife, Delilah.

Ferrer started off by saying she had enjoyed my previous columns about convincing my father to stop being a pandejo, and how Delilah and her employees continue to mask at her Santa Ana market, offering masks free of charge to customers.

“I can tell you what you’ve done — you’ve been wearing a mask, and a good one,” she said. “We’ve been in such a fight about the mask, but most of the people who have told me they haven’t received COVID tell me they’ve been wearing a mask.

“You’ve had the good fortune that you haven’t been in a place, or went to a gathering where there was someone who was very infectious,” Ferrer continued. “And you’ve been cautious from the start.”

Eh …

In the early months, I would don masks while on assignments but ditch them in my personal life. I found them silly and felt self-conscious wearing one — highlighted my big forehead, you know? What converted me was my wife telling me I’d be banned from her store if I didn’t wise up. She also made me evolve my look — from bandanna to a cloth mask to a surgical one to the N95 variety that I now wear as comfortably as a windbreaker — as new studies emerged on the efficacy of each.

Happy wife, happy life, no sick strife ... or something.

A woman wearing a mask stands at the door to a market.
Delilah Snell, wife of the author, stands at the front door of her store, Alta Baja Market in Santa Ana
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

When I told Ferrer that my wife has also never contracted COVID, she sounded even more impressed.

“Between the two of you, you were being cautious at the right places at the right time, and it really reduces your exposure,” she said.

“But,” Ferrer added, “you’ve probably had some good luck.”

More like a lot.

I never stopped visiting my father and siblings, although I’ve always made sure there’s some sort of ventilation. This summer, I went to a banquet in a sweltering room where I was one of a handful of people wearing a mask — and even I eventually took mine off. Just last week, I went to lunch with a friend who’s been even more cautious than me — and he texted two days later to let me know I should test myself (I came out negative; he didn’t).

My wife and I now basically live our pre-pandemic lives but still exercise caution. We go out to eat at our favorite spots, but mostly in patio settings. We have friends over, but only with our front door or windows open. We haven’t been perfect — and yet we remain COVID-free.

“I do almost everything I want to do at this point,” Ferrer said, “but I have my mask on the entire time. I’ll go to concerts indoors, and I might be one of five people wearing a mask, but I do feel it makes a difference.”

Could the fact that people like me haven’t gotten COVID make others think that they don’t have to take any precautions at all?

“I don’t know many people who haven’t taken precautions and haven’t gotten COVID,” Ferrer responded. “There is something about the good fortune about you not getting exposure, and you might have some good genes. Maybe something about your immune system is making it hard for the virus to take hold.”

I’m sure my good luck will run out soon — I’m about to hop on a flight, for starters — but talking to Ferrer reinforced my conviction that caution is the best way to stave off la corona. Definitely not hubris: when I boasted that I’ve drunk orange juice my entire life, and that surely must boost my body to fight off disease, I could practically hear my wife roll her eyes nearby.

“No, it’s what I’ve always said!” she yelled over the television. “Wear a mask! This pandemic would’ve been over long ago if people just wore their masks!”

Ferrer laughed.

“Your wife has been right from the very beginning,” she said. “Listen to her more. She has the wisdom of women taking care of each other.”

Happy wife, better life.


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