When the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic hit in 2009, regular flu season was already in full swing at my elementary school. The flu jumped from student to student, whittling attendance in my third grade class down ten people by midwinter. The germ bouncing around was probably just a more intense version of the regular flu, but in my eight-year-old mind, everything was H1N1. I took every precaution. I wiped down surfaces and doorknobs and carried a bottle of Germ-X in my backpack. The swine flu was not getting into my body.
I was confident in my germ-dodging expertise until I woke up one night with a fever, chills, and nausea.
I was disappointed in myself. After all that cleaning, handwashing, and distancing from contagious kids (I held my breath around the sneezers), how did I get sick? As I gulped down chicken soup, I prayed for my immune system to never let in a germ again.
So much for that.
When Dr. Tom McLarney called me during my Zoom ballet class last week to inform me of my positive COVID-19 test, I was shocked. I had been in quarantine for two weeks with the rest of Wes and had no idea where I could’ve gotten the virus. My nasal swab betrayed me.
It’s been over a year since COVID-19 entered the States, and eleven since my tango with the flu. It’s been ten days in quarantine. Besides feeling sick, I feel like I’m sitting at the culmination point of every “what if” I’ve thought of in the past year. This time, though, my worries aren’t about whether or not I’ll get the virus—that box is checked.
What if my asthma makes my symptoms worse? What if I gave COVID-19 to a friend? What if I have to be hospitalized?
I’ve been spiraling into fears of getting COVID-19 since last March. It kept me awake at night, as I’m sure it has for others. The germ that’s in my body has infected and killed millions, distanced loved ones, and hurt more people than I can imagine. And yet here is this unwelcome guest, swimming in my bloodstream.
Facing your fears is one thing. Embodying them—literally—is a whole new ball game.
The thing that makes germs scary is that you cannot control them. No one can. If anyone could, we wouldn’t be in a pandemic. You can control yourself and your behaviors, but ultimately there’s always a slim chance that germs will sneak in. My mom explains COVID-19 precautions as layers of swiss cheese: each preventative measure has holes, but the more slices of swiss cheese on top of one another (i.e., distancing, plus masking, plus testing, etc.), the more likely gaps are covered by another layer, preventing germs from getting in.
You can never guarantee any slice of cheese will be 100% effective, but the bigger your cheese stack, the less likely you are to get sick. You get the picture.
My methods of germ dodging usually work. I never got the flu after 2010, avoided every stomach bug, and evaded most classroom common colds. While I’m sure my handwashing and other precautionary measures helped, I owe just as much of my success to something completely out of my control: luck.
This summer, I became convinced I would get COVID-19 at college and freaked out. I was living at home with my parents, who were both working remotely for non-essential jobs, which was a huge privilege. Even if I had gotten the virus at home, my family would have been okay. My anxious spiral led me to self-help books and hours of TED talks. In the end, it was clear that to overcome germ anxiety, you must come to terms with the things you cannot control and put your effort into the things you can. Easier said than done, I know.
My logic is this: I can’t control what this virus is doing inside of me, and I can’t time travel to figure out how I got the disease and change course. I can’t control what the virus is doing to the world or the people in it. But I can isolate until I’m not contagious, drink tea, and feel eternally grateful that I’m young, healthy, and have minor symptoms and a safe place to quarantine. (And, a rather luxurious one—thanks, Wes.)
The wish I made at eight to never get sick again was glaringly unrealistic. I now understand that I could drink Emergen-C like water and slather every surface with disinfectant, but still get ill.
The gravity of this virus is real and scary. As a young person, it can be easy to operate around the “I’ll be fine if I get it” mentality, the fallacy of which is the chance that you won’t be fine. Or, that you’ll spread it to someone else, and they won’t be. Even minor COVID is horrible, trust me. No one is invincible, and as I learned at eight, you cannot simply wish away germs. Luck is not always going to be on your side. So stack up your cheeses and wear a mask.