With virus, more questions than answers


The day before I flew to Colorado in May, I spent a long evening at my grandma’s house, wearing a mask and talking from across the room, trying to figure out how to keep my distance and still take advantage of time together before moving 2,251 miles away.

Before I left, I went to hug her, then stopped. Instead, I washed my hands before I held hers for a minute, turning my head to avoid breathing directly onto her face. Of all the times I’ve said goodbye before packing up and moving away, this was the worst.

She’s 87 years old, and after health scares last year, she was strictly following the stay-at-home rules in Rhode Island to keep away from people who could transmit the coronavirus. I’d been careful, but not meticulous, and knew I could have been infected at work, in a grocery store or at home from a roommate.

The week before, I’d gone inside a hospital for a story, where I stood in a crowd of scrub-wearing doctors and nurses and interviewed a woman who’d recently tested positive for the virus.

I had no symptoms, but was terrified I could be contagious, and that I’d be the one to bring the virus into her house. Without knowing for sure that I hadn’t been exposed, just being there in her house was a risk. I was more worried than she was, but the risk felt like it was worth taking. I didn’t know when I would be able to come back, given the uncertainty with quarantines and travel restrictions. And at the time, I wasn’t sure how a cross-country move would work out.

Once I got here, the questions didn’t stop: what could I have picked up on the flight here, in the airport or on the drive from Denver? Had I moved from a hotspot just to bring the virus with me?

So when I found out in June that there would be free antibody testing in Montrose, it seemed like a chance to maybe get some clarity: an answer to the question I’d been wondering about while everything else still seemed unanswered.

Montrose Memorial Hospital offered the tests for a week to anyone who wanted one, for their own epidemiological research. Because it’s a blood test, there wasn’t the same scarcity issues that have plagued access to the tests for active virus, which require specific nasal swabs and liquid reagents.

The process was simple enough: I walked into the Event Center and wound my way through the nearly empty lobby, roped off like an airport security line or an eerily quiet amusement park. I had my temperature taken, filled out paperwork and handed it over at the concession stand, where computers and paperwork replaced cash registers and snacks. The blood draw was quick, and I was sent on my way half an hour after arriving.

When the results came in mail, they brought little in the way of certainty. I had no antibodies, so I probably hadn’t been infected at any point in the last few months.

In some ways, it was almost reassuring: confirmation, at least, that I hadn’t exposed my grandma to the virus she’d been giving up so much to avoid. But it also meant that if I’d known sooner, maybe I could have said a proper goodbye before I left.

I know now that I didn’t bring it here with me, a small sense of comfort, but it means I’m just as susceptible to catching it as anyone else here.

A positive result wouldn’t have given me much more in the way of answers. It would mean I might have some immunity to the virus, which would be nice to know, but it’s still not clear how long I’d have the antibodies and how much protection they provide.

A positive result might have told me I’d gotten through the virus at some point with no or only minimal symptoms, which also would have been nice to know. But it would also raise more questions, because it would mean that at some point between March and June, I’d been unknowingly contagious and putting other people at risk. I’d have no idea when that was, and who I might have exposed then: my roommates, my parents, the person sitting two seats over from me on my flight to Denver.

Knowing whether I’d already been infected wouldn’t have changed much for me. I wouldn’t stop wearing a mask or start hanging out in large crowds again, and it wouldn’t mean I couldn’t contract a mutated version of the virus in the future. Not much has changed since before those test results: I still don’t know where I could be exposed, if I could expose someone else, and I’m still not quite sure which risks are the right ones to take. I took the test hoping for answers, but ended up with just as many questions.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. She is covering affordable housing and related socioeconomic issues, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on Ouray County, for the Ouray County Plaindealer. Email her at liz@ouraynews.com.