An Update from a (Pandemic) Odd Couple

By Christine Heenan and Jane Randel

In 2020, we wrote a joint essay about how our differing dispositions — Christine is usually positive, Jane can be negative — made for different approaches to a new, virus-imposed world order: Jane was long on stocking up, preparing, taking precautions, imagining the worst; Christine came at the pandemic more, shall we say…improvisationally, assuming things would all work out.

Welcome to 2022, the third year in which COVID is ever-present in our thinking, and an Omicron-infested, self-tested January in which being “positive” or “negative” has taken on a whole different meaning. In a world in which being positive means two little parallel stripes on your home COVID test strip, Christine is positive, which is making her feel pretty negative. Jane, however, remains negative: how positive is that?

Christine: If my pandemic outlook were a dress code, I’d say my approach to the past two years has been “Covid Casual”: I took the threat seriously, adopted precautionary measures like masks and distancing, and got vaxxed as soon as I could. But I also took risks others might not have felt comfortable with: international travel, early return to the office, visiting my kids in hotspot states. Still, for two years, that strategy paid off for me: I avoided the virus, but felt able, mostly, to live my life.

Jane: My approach has varied throughout the COVID-era, but could be summarized as “Covid Semi-Formal”: Initially I was admittedly panicked, but as we eased into that first summer and better understood the disease, my rules relaxed. Fall and Winter 2021 brought new challenges, but again, once the warmer weather hit, the masks came off more easily, and we started eating indoors again and hosting people in our home. Even into this fall, we felt like we understood how to stay healthy, visiting friends and family right up until it did not feel safe to do so anymore.

Christine: This holiday season, it was hard to not view Omicron as an oncoming train that would eventually run us all over: never had I had so many friends or colleagues report they’d gotten COVID. It was in this window, where self-administered testing proliferated, that the parlance changed, too: someone went from “having COVID” to “being positive.” Did you hear about Marla? No, what? Positive. Suddenly, negativity was the holy grail, positive the state to avoid if you could.

Jane: My last indoor dining experience was in early December to celebrate a good friend’s milestone birthday in NYC at a restaurant so hot and crowded that I joked to my husband that if I didn’t have COVID after that, I was not sure I would ever get it. That was right before Omicron hit the proverbial fan. Immediately after that, I could not check email or answer a call without hearing more negative stories about people being positive — neighbors, colleagues, friends. We ended up cancelling all of our holiday plans. The small cocktail party for neighbors; Christmas at my sister-in-law’s; a Boxing Day gathering of only three couples. We have been relative recluses ever since. The biggest factor for our lock down was trying to stay negative so that my kids can return to college without delay — at least that’s what I tell myself.

Christine: On the morning of New Year’s Eve, a friend I’d had lunch with two days before in a restaurant called to say she’d woken up feeling crummy, took a test, and tested positive. I had plans that day and that evening, so figured I’d better test as well, just as a precaution, even though I felt fine. I’d had at least two known exposures in the previous two weeks — friends who’d tested positive after a holiday party where we were together, my mom who’d tested positive after Christmas with my family. In both cases, my own test that followed those revelations showed a negative result, which was, of course, positive news. Not this time. The test kit promises to deliver a result within 15 minutes, but mine took no more than two in handing down the most negative of verdicts, and one I was shockingly unprepared for: positive.

I had been saying blithely for weeks that “Oh, I think we’re all going to get Omicron,” given the rate and ease of the variant’s spread. But whatever intellectual resignation I thought I had, it didn’t match my reaction to staring at those damning parallel lines: WHAT?? I have COVID? How could that be? I felt vulnerable, and disappointed, and…negative.

Jane: We have self-tested a few times and each time were relieved to be negative. But Rapid Tests have become the toilet paper of 2020, and I am fighting the urge to hoard them, so we only use them when absolutely necessary.

Christine: It is definitely a negative experience being positive. It feels lousy to feel lousy, and silly as it seems, I felt like I’d failed at something by not managing to avoid COVID. As a positive (disposition) person, I usually LOVE greeting the fresh page of a new year with resolutions, goals, lists of things I’d like to do, see, accomplish in the year ahead. It’s a weird thing to start a new year isolated, low energy, and under the weather. But I still knew — and still know — how incredibly lucky I am to have mild disease, and I am incredibly grateful for the vaccines that protected me from getting really sick. I’d text back and forth with local friends in the same boat, comparing symptoms, counting the days, bonding over our shared state. My one friend who was testing more often would regularly ask: still positive? She was asking for a status check on my illness, but I took it as a challenge for my mindset. Still positive? Yes, but also yes.

Jane: It is an odd analogy, but there is something about waiting for the COVID test results that reminds me of waiting for pregnancy test results where a positive or negative result means different things to different people. We have been able to dodge the COVID-bullet for now, and like Christine, we are grateful for the science that allows us not to be terrified if we do get a positive result. To date, one kid has returned to college and another goes back in a week, so we really have to stay COVID-free. That said, there is a small scratch in the back of my throat that has been distracting me all day…making me feel pretty negative about the prospect of being positive.