For vaccinated Vermonters, there’s a lot more to testing positive than COVID symptoms
Ty Morris was taking calls from her car on a recent Friday afternoon. Her toddler wouldn’t let her work at home, and she didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“I can't go to a library, because I was exposed to COVID,” she said. “So I'm sitting in my car in Brattleboro, stealing internet from the co-op, trying to get some work done.”
Morris is a social worker from West Townshend. Both she and her young son tested positive for the virus that causes COVID at the beginning of the year. In the days after, she felt like she was in survival mode to manage her job and take care of her kid.
“I'm having to cancel on clients last minute, and that feels awful. Or I'm having to hide in my car or my bathroom to meet with a client,” she said.
Meanwhile her son – who’s almost 2, he was born in March of 2020 – just wanted to leave the house. He was bored of television, and just about everything inside.
“He's so young,” she said. “I can't explain to him, like, ‘Oh, you are sick and can't come into contact with people. And here's why.’ This has literally been his whole life. He has no idea what's going on.”
Morris is among about one in four Vermonters who have been infected in recent weeks, according to one model from a group of scientists at the University of Washington. They estimate that 38% of the state has been infected as of the end of January, compared to just 13% of Vermonters before the omicron surge.
For Morris, there’s no question about how she got the virus. She was visiting relatives in Washington D.C., when her stepmom tested positive. (Later, Morris' parents learned their plumber had COVID.)
But for many of the Vermonters who’ve tested positive in recent weeks, after months of dutifully avoiding gatherings and restaurants and playdates, they have no idea how they picked it up.
“I’ve been trying to wrack my brain to figure out where I could have gotten it — and it’s really hard to pin down,” said Rowan Sherwood, of Montpelier. “Honestly, it was probably in a gas station bathroom, or something like that.”
One of her sons tested positive over winter break. Then she and her other son got sick. They felt OK – mostly tired and congested.
"It was really embarrassing. And I felt shame having to tell people, which was a weird thing to experience.”
Something similar happened to Molly Trayah from South Burlington.
“We really have not been around anybody,” she said. “We didn't do any get-togethers for Christmas. We really have just only seen a few people outside.”
Over the holidays, her 4-year-old son had a bellyache, but she didn’t think anything of it.
“We just chalked it up to the fact that he ate way too much dirty snow when he was sledding in our backyard,” she said. “It didn't, for one minute, cross my mind of, ‘Oh, we should COVID-test him.’”
Trayah was only testing her kids as a precaution before sending them back to school, following the state’s recommendation. So her son’s positive result really caught her off guard.
At first, she felt like she had done something wrong. “It was really embarrassing,” she said. “I felt shame having to tell people, which was a weird thing to experience.”
And there were a lot of people to tell: the pediatrician, her son’s daycare, her daughter’s school nurse, her job, coworkers, the Health Department, friends who had gone sledding.
“It's insanity beyond just the COVID positive tests,” she said. “It's almost like we forget that, oh, wow, this little guy actually tested positive for COVID. Because it's everything else that’s taking priority.”
“It's almost like we forget that, oh, wow, this little guy actually tested positive for COVID. Because it's everything else that’s taking priority.”
For Sandy Kish, who lives in Essex, the only potential exposure to the virus he can think of was on Christmas Eve. He couldn’t find lights for his Christmas tree, so he drove to a hardware store in the neighboring town of Jericho. Inside, he noticed a handful of people weren’t wearing masks.
“I tensed up a bit,” he said. “I had a mask on myself. And that's the only situation where I've been in a place where people were not wearing masks on a regular basis.”
Kish is in his 70s, and he’s an active guy. After playing tennis for a few hours, he felt lousy. That’s when he realized he might be sick.
“My wife said, ‘Let's take your temperature and use the oximeter,’” he said. “Both were in very bad levels. So we decided to take a rapid test. And the rapid tests showed that I was positive. And it just upset my world at that point.”
The next few days he had the shivers, he slept a lot, and he felt pretty out of it. He’s still not himself.
“It was harder to put sentences together, and ideas together,” he said. “I think normally, I'm a pretty articulate person, but this brain fog is just kind of a strange thing to me”
And those weird symptoms, where COVID changes your sense of smell and taste – that happened too.
“Everything tasted like tinfoil, and everything smelled either like gravy or toast,” he said. “You walk near your wife, who should be shedding perfume, and she smells like gravy.”
His smell is back to normal now. But Kish says this feeling of his world getting turned upside down wasn’t about getting sick. It was everything else: The guilt of potentially exposing people who might be more at-risk than him, and how it impacted others.
Like, a couple times a week, Kish coaches skiers who have visual impairments and other disabilities. He felt like he was letting those athletes down.
He also ran into the practical problem of finding enough rapid tests to figure out when he was no longer infectious. His wife drove around to six pharmacies looking for tests, and came back empty-handed.
This is not an uncommon issue. While things have gotten better in recent weeks, Rowan Sherwood, from Montpelier, ended up buying a bunch of tests from someone her partner got in touch with. They met the man on the street in Waterbury.
“It was like back-alley antigen tests,” she said. “It was hilarious.”
Despite the frantic search for tests, the boredom of isolating, confusion of interpreting results, and the many, many phone calls involved, for Sherwood there has been one positive from all of this.
“Just all the support that people have offered,” she said. “People just checking to see if we're OK, and if we need anything, and willing to bring things by and leave them out on the porch.”
Kish had the same experience. Neighbors volunteered to go grocery shopping. Even his doctor, who lives down the road, offered to plow his driveway.
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.
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