When I got back from a run on a Sunday morning two days after returning to campus for the fall semester, there was a missed call from an unknown number on my phone. I typically don’t answer unrecognized numbers, but unlike the many robocalls that bombard my phone, this caller had left a voicemail. When I pressed play and put my phone to my ear, I heard Davison Health Center Medical Director Dr. Tom McLarney asking me to call him back as soon as I could. I knew there was only one reason why he would call me, so I was not surprised when he informed me on the phone that I had tested positive for COVID-19. But what I didn’t understand was how that was possible. My parents and I had been living in New York City at the height of the pandemic; we had watched as trucks with freezers were brought in to store the bodies of people who had died when there was no longer room for them anywhere else. My parents, who are both considered at risk because of their age, swore that we would take every precaution possible to not get sick. We wiped down our groceries, wore masks even when running outside, and politely declined invitations from friends wondering if a small get-together would be okay. I had friends who flew to California and Texas to celebrate the Fourth of July, but the biggest event of my summer was a weekend trip to Costco. Not only that, but I’d had a COVID-19 test two days before coming to campus and it had come back negative.
Yet there I was, crying into my mask as McLarney explained that Public Safety would be sending a van to pick me up in 30 minutes. I called my parents, who had driven me to Wesleyan just days earlier, and told them what had happened. I put two more masks over the one I was already wearing and began shoving some clothes into my backpack. I was asked to meet the van in the parking lot of Neon Deli so that my privacy could be protected as much as possible. When the van pulled up, a man in a mask and protective clothing opened the door for me. Once I was inside, he brought his walkie talkie to his mouth and said, “The party is in the van,” before starting the car and driving me down to the Middletown Inn.
A person who tests positive for COVID-19 is required to remain in quarantine for at least ten days. If you develop symptoms, you remain in quarantine until you’ve been without a fever for 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medications like Tylenol. All close contacts, including the people you’re living with on campus, have to quarantine for 14 days with a sign that says “Call Public Safety prior to entry” plastered on your door. McLarney told my parents and I that a false positive test was not out of the question, but that I’d have to quarantine for ten days regardless to comply with Connecticut State Guidelines. I began researching what exactly it meant to test positive, and found that there was surprisingly no simple answer. Wesleyan uses a PCR diagnostic test. Essentially, if the genetic material of the virus is present in your body, the test amplifies it into millions of copies through repeated cycles. The more cycles the test has to go through to amplify the genetic material, the less virus is present in your body. The number of cycles a test carries out is communicated through something called a cycle threshold number. In the United States, there is no set cycle threshold number that constitutes a “positive” test. A test could pick up a minuscule amount of virus and return a “positive” result, even if the person does not have a large enough viral load to be contagious. The Broad Institute does not report the cycle threshold numbers of tests to the Davison Health Center, so there is no way for students to know exactly how much virus they might be carrying.
It was strange to think that the little round balls with spikes I had seen so often in the past few months could be coming out of my lungs when I breathed, or might be floating around my hotel room. Mostly, I didn’t consider the social impact that a positive test would have. When I told acquaintances from some of my in-person classes that I had tested positive, they would get a strange and uncomfortable look on their faces. I had to email the professors of those classes and explain that I might not be able to attend in the event that I became symptomatic. Everyone I told was extremely kind and supportive, but I always had the feeling that I had done something wrong. Eventually, I stopped bringing it up unless I had to. I rearranged the furniture in my hotel room so that I could sit at a desk with nothing but a bare wall behind me, hoping no one would notice that it was just a shade darker than any building in University housing.
The Middletown Inn is not a bad place to have to spend ten days. I had a large room with two full beds, a fridge and a TV. A Bon Appetit employee would knock on my door at lunch and dinner to deliver a bag with a main course, salads, deserts, Gatorade, and protein bars. Everyone I talked to always wanted to know if I was okay. The Davison Health Center called me twice a day to see how I was feeling and get the numbers from my thermometer and pulse oximeter. One of my roommates had a birthday during our quarantine period, and Bon Appetit delivered a whole cake to their door. The worst part of quarantine, for me, was the uncertainty and the unknown. I called my parents three times a day to ask if they had developed symptoms. We were all wondering if the six months we had spent being so careful had all been for nothing. Then, five days into quarantine, my parents tested negative (their doctor had recommended that they wait a few days before being tested to avoid the possibility of a false negative). We were happy when we got the results, but even more confused. For the first time, I truly began to wonder if my test had been accurate. My instinct was to trust the test, but I had a growing suspicion that my result might belong to the test’s 5 percent margin of error.
At the end of my quarantine period, I was driven back up to my apartment and reunited with my roommates. The first thing I did was walk to the testing tent. A person truly infected with COVID will test positive for up to around 90 days afterwards; if I tested positive again, Dr. McLarney said, we would know that I had in fact had COVID and I’d be taken out of the testing cycle for the remainder of the semester. If the test was negative, however, I’d continue to get tested. Just over 24 hours later, I received my results: they were negative. Two days later, I was tested again. My results were negative and I was officially declared to have had a false positive COVID-19 test.
The thing I appreciated most about my experience was the understanding it gave me of what it’s like to test positive, to not understand where you could have gone wrong when you’d been so careful, to spend your days over-analyzing every cough and stuffy nose, and missing the time when your entire life wasn’t confined to one room. I’m aware that I would not be writing this if my test had turned out to be a true positive. There is a stigma attached to a positive test, an implication that a person who contracts the virus was not as careful as they could have been, that they failed to protect themselves and consequently could pose a danger to those around them. I’m able to write this piece because I can tell my friends in my in-person classes that I had a positive test without the fear that they will see me differently. Because I never had COVID. Because I am not the one to blame for having had a positive result, but neither are the people who do actually have the virus—in most cases—and they should not be perceived as such. Just because a person tests positive for COVID doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t follow pandemic safety measures. What my experience taught me more than anything is that there is only so much a person can control, no matter how often they wear a mask or use hand sanitizer on their hands.
Sophie Wazlowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.