It began Thursday night with a slight ache in the shoulders that expanded to the neck. A headache soon joined the party.
Within a half hour, the chills washed over me so badly that I wrapped myself in a comforter on one of the warmest nights of the year.
Having evaded it for two and a half years, it was finally my turn. I had come down with COVID-19. And it packed a wallop.
This is the story of how I got the virus and dealt with it in quarantine over the Fourth of July weekend.
My case comes as a new vaccine-resistant offshoot of the omicron variant — the BA.5 subvariant — is becoming the dominant strain across the U.S.
But it takes a process called genomic sequencing to determine a specific variant, so I won’t know whether it is BA.5, which accounted for 53% of all new cases in the U.S. as of late June. Still, it was likely some form of omicron, which spreads easily but has less severe outcomes. After omicron’s initial surge in December and January, key metrics such as hospitalizations, ICU admissions, ventilator use and death have pretty much hovered around the same level for at least two months in New Jersey with no wild swings. There were 885 in New Jersey hospitals with COVID Tuesday night, a far cry from the more than 6,000 a day at the height of the omicron wave in January.
By the time my symptoms started, it had been 850 days since New Jersey’s first coronavirus case. I had spent much of that time writing more than 300 articles documenting the pandemic. But writing about it and living through the symptoms firsthand are two different things.
My symptoms began Thursday night hours after my wife, young daughter and I touched down in New Jersey from a weeklong stay at Disney World, where it was soon clear I brought home more than just mouse ears.
A friend of ours who was staying at the same hotel had tested positive earlier in the week. But our interactions with him were few and mostly brief.
My best guess is that I caught COVID from simply being around a ton of tourists from across the globe packed into buses, monorails and rides, and not being as vigilant as I had been through most of the pandemic.
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Here’s what I did wrong: I didn’t wear an N95 or KN95 mask that helps prevent the wearer from contracting the virus. The ones we had were tight, hurt my ears and feltstifling under the blazing Florida sun. Instead, I wore a much less protective paper mask.
I also didn’t wear my mask as much indoors as I should have. I put one on only when it got very crowded. I plead guilty to COVID fatigue.
I am 46, relatively healthy and active. I’m fully vaccinated and had a booster shot in December — all developed before we knew anything about omicron subvariants.
A friend in health care told me the doctors she works with are only prescribing the COVID drug Paxlovid to the immuno-compromised. So I did what most people do these days — toughed it out with a sizable helping of Tylenol and Gatorade.
We had touched down at Newark Liberty on Thursday afternoon and I was feeling fine for several hours.
But around 9 p.m. I started getting the chills. I went to bed early and woke up a few hours later shivering. I checked my temperature. It was 101 — not the highest in the world but it had been a long time since I had a fever.
It was all but impossible to go back to sleep. My skin was so hot, it felt like you could fry Taylor ham on it.
I hadn’t felt this sick in years.
I didn’t want to get out of bed. My body felt incredibly weak. Just walking across the room took serious effort.
A half hour later I was shoving a rapid test swab up both nostrils. Two stripes. And the one indicating infection was dark when it’s often faded.
The first thing that I did was write emails and text messages to everyone I had come into contact with the day before — a source I bumped into at the Orlando airport, family members who shared a condo with us at Disney and half a dozen neighbors who had welcomed me home the night before.
My fever rose to 102.7 in the afternoon. But after a long nap, the fever had subsided and I was feeling better. The chills were gone.
I slept 12 hours straight. As something of an insomniac, I didn’t think I was even capable.
My temperature hovered around 101 most of the day. I thought I had an extra bottle of Tylenol in the back of the medicine cabinet. Turns out it was the type for children. So I chomped down on bubble gum-flavored acetaminophen. Disgusting at first, but it grew on me.
Thankfully my wife and daughter replenished the adult supply. They were great making me meals, leaving them at the bedroom door and cheering me up with conversations a hallway away. So too were my neighbors, a bunch of whom volunteered to go shopping for me.
My temperature dropped below 100 for the first time.
And then envy set in.
I was quarantining on July 4th weekend, my favorite time of the year when the days are long and the living’s easy. I’m a firm believer that you have to make every summer day count before the cold and the gray are upon us. And I’m stuck inside.
Making it worse was that my apartment sits right above a swimming pool where my neighbors were throwing parties. I opened the window and heard the squeal of kids splashing around, including my own.
I reminded myself that this was a small price to pay compared to the 34,000 New Jerseyans who never made it past quarantine.
But if this happens again, God please let it be on a dreary week in January when the rest of New Jersey is just as miserable.
But not for me.
I took a rapid test in the morning and it came back positive. I also developed a small cough — the first sign that this virus had worked its way into my lungs. It waned as the day progressed.
I checked on a tool the Centers for Disease Control developed called a “COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation Calculator.” It indicated that I would be able to leave my apartment in two days because my fever had abated.
So I thought about that day as fireworks danced in the sky and the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid seeped through my bedroom window.
My wife and daughter left in the morning for a planned stay at my in-laws’ house.
And that meant I could come out of my bedroom for the first time in almost a week. It wasn’t exactly deGaulle marching under the Arc de Triomphe, but I’d be lying if stepping into my kitchen didn’t feel liberating.
I still felt tired but the cough was almost gone and the fever seemed like a distant memory.
I celebrated the end of my quarantine by donning a mask and taking out the trash. I then headed downstairs to do a load of laundry. We dream big in my household.
I also thought about a conversation I had last year with Chris Aldrich, a Toms River firefighter, who came down with a rough case of COVID even though he had been fully vaccinated.
“Had I not been vaccinated, it would have been much, much worse,” he told me last June. “I firmly believe it saved my life.”
My immunity from the vaccines has no doubt waned. And the jury is still out on just how effective those antibodies are against all of these omicron subvariants. But like Aldrich, I’m glad I got them.
I hear some people out my window splash into the pool. I’m going to continue to be cautious over the next several days. There will be enough time to grab summer by the horns.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Our COVID reporter got COVID. It walloped him