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News + PoliticsOpinionI just caught COVID—right before essential safety measures expire

I just caught COVID—right before essential safety measures expire

As someone uninsured, I was lucky to get free vax, tests, and Paxlovid. We may be all on our own after May 11

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It finally happened.

The day the CDC’s mask-averse Director Rochelle Walensky treated her resignation as a victory lap (days after their own conference became a super-spreader event) was also the day I’d been dreading for the past three and a half years. A week into caring for an infected housemate, my morning on/go at-home Ag test—which I’d taken using the oral-and-nasal method—showed something it never had before: a faint line by the “T.” To make sure I wasn’t crazy, I followed up with a Celltrion DiaTrust Ag test: only a “C” line. I liked that, but I’m too scientific to leave anything to chance, so I followed up again with an iHealth Ag test: just like the on/go, there was a faint “T” line. Well, fuck.

If you’re anything like me—uninsured in “the richest nation on Earth”—then you probably wondered the same thing I did: “How did this happen?” and “What now?” With all the safety measures vanishing on May 11, I hoped I could at least find some last-minute resources.

Our whole house is infected, so it’s safe to say that someone else brought it in, possibly from somewhere they went or from someone they had over. As for what to do next, I won’t lie: The thought of jackin’ a pharmacy for fistfuls of Paxlovid crossed my mind. I mean, it’s not as if world leaders or health officials have made it clear how the hell uninsured folks are supposed to get Pax.

Fortunately, the on/go app stepped up and detailed the process that got me a full prescription from a local CVS within an hour. I’m hoping these pills, my recent “accidental” bivalent booster, and quarantining for a full 14 days will ultimately spare me COVID’s worst outcomes (Long COVID, permanent disability, death). I’m grateful every morning I still have my senses of smell and taste, even for Paxlovid’s gross aftertaste.

Now, imagine I’d tried that after May 11. Better yet, imagine someone not-as-tech-savvy trying it before or after then. From 2020 onward, we had a fantastic system—locally, nationally, and worldwide—dedicated to getting people tested, quarantined, masked, and vaxxed as quickly and safely as humanly possible. We had songs from E-40 and a COVID-redux track Juvenile; we had homeless folks moved into empty hotels receiving the Johnson & Johnson’s one-jab vax in case they couldn’t make a second appointment; we had parents taking their kids out of school to get their first doses. And we got masks, so many gorgeous masks! It was a good system that only had room to improve.

Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the system was dismantled piece-by-excruciating-piece. World leaders boasted “We have the tools” as each of them signed orders eliminating ease-of-access to said tools. Think of how many free and open-air vaccine and testing sites there were just a year ago. Now, without looking it up, name the nearest on to where you live?

I got my first COVID test in a drive-thru near SF and got my first two vaccine jabs at City College of San Francisco. I now have to buy all my tests out-of-pocket and only got my recent bivalent jab after being rejected by two other clinics. (I call it “accidental” because the only reason the finally clinic gave it to me is because the doc missed the date on my card showing I’d gotten my last bivalent back in September. Since vaccines wane after six months, I was lucky to get it when I did.) 

For stupid, greedy reasons, a world once united in facing the crisis of a generation has now bent to the will of anti-maskers/-vaxxers who think COVID was either a hoax or cooked up in a lab by some stereotypically “evil Chinese” scientists (it wasn’t). One minute, they’re saying “These fine Apple products let you permanently work from home!”, then it’s “Get your asses back in the office, wage-monkeys! Signed, Apple CEO Tim Cook.” I won’t even get into COVID’s complete absence in mainstream entertainment (something pondered at length by me and people smarter than me).

And even now I can hear victim-blamers whining that getting infected must have been my own damn fault or that catching COVID is inevitable. That’s nothing new: After I wrote this op-ed about still being COVID-cautious, my editor shared with me a reader’s reply that agreed with my criticisms of London Breed, but said COVID safety was a “personal choice.” It’s similar to what I’d later hear from an acquaintance who refuses to mask anymore (“I’m vaxxed and relaxed”) and called me “judgmental” for insisting on masking and other proven-effective safety measures. 

Here’s why that’s bullshit:
1) COVID is airborne, so without measures (high-quality masks) to protect your airway (nose and mouth), you’re practically rolling out the red carpet for infection;
2) I didn’t catch it as a result of my own negligence, but of the collective negligence of a world that no longer takes the coronavirus seriously.

If I take every precaution walking down the street—completely sober, unobstructed view, looking both ways before I cross—there’s still the possibility that I could be mowed down by a drunk driver. Are you really out to blame the victim struck by a 2,000-pound piece of metal going 100mph? We have the Swiss Cheese Model to explain protections for a reason: Safety isn’t simply due to one thing or person, but everything and every person. Take it from someone who hasn’t sat in a proper restaurant or cinema since February 2020, the theater and art critic so insistent on venues being COVID-safe that I’m now derisively known as “the guy always asking about COVID shit.” (Other 48hills readers’ response has been supportive of my stance.)

Yes, every review I write mentions a venue’s safety measures (mask and vax mandates, CO² level), both for my personal edification and public information, and for the sake of the venues stepping up their game. They did it after the 1918 Influenza, they can do it now. The world leaders are right in that we do “have the tools”, but they’re constantly taking them away from those of us who need them most. Meanwhile, those same people won’t even meet up in public (think DAVOS) unless the venue has had such a safety overhaul that it might as well be Project: Genesis from Star Trek.

At age 42, I’m the youngest person in my house. All the others have underlying conditions that are only exacerbated from catching COVID (one of them more than once). But at least they have insurance. Since the rollback of mitigations began over a year ago, I’ve been convinced that the US was so eager to drop their fully-effective COVID measures because they were too effective.

What I’m saying is that the free testing, free masks, free vaccines, and tele-health services (which have been a lifesaving game-changer for people in rural areas) are probably despised by Republicans and Democrats because they accidentally proved what Capitalists hate: Altruism works and the US could implement universal healthcare overnight. But that sorta thinkin’ doesn’t look good on a spreadsheet, so every world leader and influencer decided that let a deadly virus run free instead of protecting their customers and constituents.

They’ve normalized something currently killing 1,000 US citizens-per-week (in right-wing talk, that’s “one-and-a-half 9/11s-per-month”). They’re the ones who love to beat their chests about the number of cops killed every year, but have given free reign to the biggest cop-killer 3 and a half years straight.

But still, they stay the course. To what end? Only Ayn Rand’s ghost knows.

I’ll start to finish this by saying that I haven’t met fellow 48hills writer Bruce Mirken, but I always appreciate reading his “COVID isn’t over” pieces for the same reason I refuse to read the Chronicle’s umpteenth op-ed from “Maskless” Monica Gandhi. (True story: My anti-Elon Musk piece was rejected by the Chronicle in favor of one of Gandhi’s anti-masker op-eds.) I love Bruce’s pieces because, like me and others, he’s not ready to normalize something that won’t end well, if it ever ends at all.

As I prepare to take my evening dose of Paxlovid, I find myself thinking of right-leaning former friends who’d defend the US’s blood-money healthcare system, and douche bags like Martin Shkreli, by falling back on the old Republican chestnut of “If you can’t afford insurance, then don’t get sick!” They’d say this without a hint of irony or self-awareness. I’m glad to have long-since expunged those people from my life, but I know they’re the very sort who would have snorted at me for showing up to every show in quality mask (N95, KN95, KF94, FFP2) and protective eyewear. Silly me, I was trying to not get sick.

I also think of all those folks who are about to be up shit creek without a paddle when the COVID safety net disappears on May 11. I got both the vax and the Pax because they were free and accessible. Taking them away means that thousands more people will die or be permanently disabled as Walensky—who notoriously insists on the very COVID safety measures she demonizes in public—leaves office with the CDC no longer tracking transmission.

I hope those people get the help they need. I hope someone directs them the weekly, free, incredibly informative Pandemic Round-Ups by SF’s own Violet Blue. I hope there’s some sort of 2020-level sea-change that brings back the life-saving safety measures, but makes them better than ever after nearly four years. I hope I can get another booster in six months. I hope I live long enough to try and avoid catching COVID all over again.

That’s all. After May 11, I hope I live.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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