Commentary: I was a NOVID — until I wasn’t
I thought I would never get COVID. I have been vaccinated six times — so many that I ran out of space on my vaccination card. I am the person still wearing a mask at Ralphs, Trader Joe’s and CVS. (I don’t know what people in those stores have been up to.) I went to a movie theater only once in the past three years — and it was to celebrate a former colleague’s documentary at a film festival.
Last December, as COVID surged, I shivered with friends in the outdoor seating of a restaurant. The owner came out to greet us and asked, “What are you doing sitting out here?” Not getting COVID, I thought.
One by one, my (vaccinated) friends got it. My niece, nephew and their mother all got it at different times. Fortunately, no one had a severe case or ended up hospitalized.
It’s appropriate for the government to move out of the emergency response phase. But we must continue to be vigilant because the coronavirus that has killed millions over the last three years is still with us.
Only two of my close friends had never contracted COVID — even though each had lived in homes with people who did. And one of them has gotten everything else — RSV, bronchitis and assorted colds. By the fall, just the three of us remained on our island of COVID evaders. We marveled at our increasingly rare status in the biosphere. We were the vaunted “NOVIDs”.
Then I got kicked off the island.
On Friday, Oct. 13 — exactly three years and seven months since the Friday the 13th in March when a national emergency was declared — I walked into my high school reunion in Chicago and spent the next five hours with my cherished schoolmates from my all-girls Catholic high school. We drank and ate. We hugged and laughed and talked in each other’s faces and scrunched together for a class photo.
Los Angeles County is seeing its COVID-19 levels recede, a welcome reprieve before an expected climb in coronavirus transmission this fall and winter, officials say.
I got off the plane back to L.A. Monday evening and tested when I got home. For the first time, I was staring in disbelief — even though I wasn’t feeling well — at a bright pink line on a COVID test. I was dejected and annoyed. And I was sick — by the following day I had a fever, a cough, a river of a runny nose and fatigue. My internist told me it was remarkable I had gone this long without getting it.
So why did I last so long as a NOVID? And why did I finally succumb?
“That’s a really good question,” says Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease physician at UC San Francisco. “Several factors made it easier to transmit right now.” The biggest of those is the emerging HV.1 variant of Omicron, he says. “These subvariants are becoming more and more transmissible … HV.1 was pretty absent at the end of July and then it started taking off. People think it might be the variant of the winter. One reason it took off is that it’s very easy to get.”
Many immunocompromised and older Americans feel abandoned. That’s a public health failure.
There could also be a collective drop in immunity, he says. “A lot of people got infected in California and around the country in the spring of 2023. When you add six months to that, some immunity and antibodies drop. If everyone drops at the same time, it’s easier to spread.”
And I didn’t have the full immunity my new vaccination would give me because I got it less than two weeks before I went to the reunion.
We don’t know for sure where I got infected (or if I was the person who brought it to the reunion). It could have been the airport or the airplane, although I was masked on the plane. But considering the size of the reunion and other factors, it’s conceivable I walked into a perfect brew of circumstances to get COVID.
Chin-Hong knows how I feel. He got COVID for the first (and only) time last Thanksgiving from a visiting relative. “I felt like I was a failure. Here I am being the most careful person,” he said.
He estimates maybe less than 10% of the population nationally has never gotten COVID.
Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is one of them. She has never gotten COVID. “I know there are a significant number of people who haven’t gotten COVID. But I’m not really convinced for all of those folks it’s because we’re never going to get it.”
Ferrer has a family member who has had it four times. “I’ve been with this person and have not gotten infected. But she didn’t infect anyone. There are people who get infected and don’t infect that easily. It’s a new virus and there’s still a lot to learn about it,” she said.
She takes many of the same precautions I do. She masks in places that don’t appear to be well-ventilated. She avoids crowded restaurants and hasn’t been in any bars since before the pandemic. But she goes to outdoor concerts and baseball games. And she tests twice a week.
In my case, she said, I probably got a really intense exposure.
Of the estimated 134 women attending the reunion, seven of us got COVID, one of the reunion organizers told me. (I sat next to one of the seven at a brunch that Saturday morning.)
“Those are probably the tip of the iceberg,” Chin-Hong said. Chances are more of my former classmates probably got it but didn’t test or had very minor symptoms.
Seven days after I got ill, one of my friends still on the COVID island suddenly tested positive. “I doubt you gave it to me over the phone,” she texted.
One nice thing: Between my latest vaccination and my bout of COVID I could have immunity that lasts through the winter, Chin-Hong says.
He does believe there may be a small group of people with some natural immunity. “You were a NOVID,” he tells me. “Maybe at the end of this winter, the real NOVIDS will be left standing.”
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