I Was a COVID-Carrying Houseguest
I didn’t know I had it. I’m glad I took extra precautions anyway.
Let’s start by making one thing stupendously clear: COVID-19 is terrifying, and it’s serious. My mother spent nearly a week in the hospital, plus two more ER visits in the week after being discharged. Words don’t touch the fear, stress, heartache, and anxiety that my entire family felt as a result of our household’s infection — and we’ve been among the lucky ones. So I’m not here to encourage anyone to visit (much less lodge with) others during this pandemic.
Even so, it feels important to talk about my experience. The holidays are right around the corner — Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa — and we all know that some people will be visiting and sleeping at loved ones’ homes regardless. Just like there’s no such thing as 100% “safe” sex — only safer sex — there’s no such thing as 100% “safe” socializing during COVID-19 either… but, just like people have sex anyway, some people socialize during COVID-19 anyway too.
In which case, it’s wise to be aware of as many added precautions as you can.
I’ll share my experience in two parts. First, some backstory about the circumstances of my visit; then, the extra efforts I made that might’ve saved my loved ones’ lives — despite the huge risk I unwittingly posed just by being there.
Why did I chance a sleepover during a pandemic? Fair question. Last month, my parents went away for my dad’s birthday. I normally live in Germany, but I’ve been staying with them in the U.S. this year. Alas, my hometown has a raging opioid epidemic, complete with gang violence, abduction attempts, and frequent shootings… including a few such incidents close to home. So I had multiple, excellent reasons for not sleeping here alone.
Everyone involved assumed (wrongly) that because of my lifestyle and personal habits — I’m a constant-hand-washing, mask-wearing, science-believing, work-from-home hermit who hasn’t seen a single friend since early-June — I was a low-risk guest.
Well, I got COVID-19 despite my very low-risk lifestyle. (A perfect example of why you should always act as if you might already have it. And why you should avoid other people’s homes.)
We had no idea at the time because my parents’ first symptoms (e.g., shivers, pain) were things they originally chalked up to other causes, like cool October weather or a crappy mattress. Eventually, the virus also gave me weird symptoms too, but I never exactly felt “sick.” Regardless, I know in retrospect that I had it while I was a houseguest, based on the dates of my stay, the date of my first clear symptom, and the known incubation period (2 days minimum).
The relatives who hosted me — my aunt, uncle, and grandmother — are a very high-risk household. My aunt is a cancer survivor with multiple comorbidities, on supplemental oxygen for pulmonary emboli since the late-1990s. My octogenarian grandmother is also a cancer survivor with comorbidities. And of the two home health aides who assist my grandmother daily, one is diabetic.
I came into contact with all five of these people while I was unknowingly carrying COVID-19.
Thank God in the 4+weeks since I last saw them, no one in that ultra-high-risk household (nurses included) has become ill.
So, how did I go above and beyond the “masks and social distancing” mantra?
PLEASE remember: this is not a “How To.” I’m not saying, “Do this, and everyone will be fine.” The safest and the best advice is that you not visit others’ homes during the pandemic. Still, in case you must sleep elsewhere these days (e.g., for your safety) or you choose to play host yourself, I’ll explain the supplemental measures that I’m very thankful I took. In no particular order:
I minimized my time under their roof.
Even though I was sleeping there, I chose not to spend most of the day there. I arrived after dinner each night. I left each morning/afternoon. This was feasible since I had a theoretically risk-neutral place nearby to spend the rest of the day (i.e., my parents’ empty home, where I couldn’t come into contact with anyone else).
The less time you can spend in someone else’s home (particularly avoiding the waking hours, wherein you’d be talking / singing / laughing, etc.), the better.
I minimized our contact even when I was there.
I spent most “visiting” hours alone in the guest bedroom, sleeping. True, contaminated air can move between rooms, but their house is well ventilated, which might have also helped. (More info here on indoor air, ventilation, and COVID-19.)
Also, my work kept me unavailable to socialize during many of the waking hours. I felt guilty about being so antisocial and missing out on quality time — but every moment of being antisocial was a literal lifesaver in the end.
Missing out on a few hours (or days) of quality time in the now for the sake of preserving years’ worth of happy memories together in the future is a very worthwhile tradeoff.
Even when we were in the same room, I still used masks and/or practiced social distancing.
I tried to keep at least 6 feet of distance (often more) from anyone I spoke with. I wish I were as zealous about mask-wearing around family as I am about wearing masks in public, but it’s frighteningly easy to let your guard down in a family setting; there are occasions when masks must come off and household situations where you might not even think of putting your mask back on. For instance, unfortunately, mine was off if I was eating, if I was sleeping, if I was in a room by myself, if my grandmother couldn’t understand me without reading my lips, or if I stopped to chat with my aunt (e.g., she in her bed, I at her doorway) when I passed her room during my nighttime routine.
On the other hand, I sometimes forget that I’m wearing a mask and end up going about my business all masked-up anyway — indoors. That probably also helped.
Even indoors, masks and social distancing are so important.
I declined invitations to share meals together.
When my aunt and uncle offered me dinner, I ate the food at my parents’ house, alone, before going over to spend the night with them. I also brought enough snacks in my overnight bag that I didn’t need to dig into their pantries or fridge and risk contaminating their food supply. And when I did eat or drink at their house, I often (if not always) did so in a different room. Basically, we didn’t share meals together, and on the occasion that I did eat in someone’s presence, I sat faaaar away — against a wall or in a corner.
I practiced added precautions with kitchenware.
I brought some food for myself in single-portion containers. When I ate from one, I finished all of it rather than storing leftovers in the fridge, and I put my container back in my overnight bag so I could wash it at home rather than in their sink or with their sponge. If I used any of their kitchenware, I put it in their dishwasher (because a machine can sterilize objects at very high heat, hands-free — without contaminating a sponge). I didn’t touch their stove, microwave, toaster, or kettle. I kept my water glass in the guest room, far away from where anyone else ate or drank and where no one else would touch it.
When I did serve or share food, I was anal about it.
When my grandmother asked me to grab a pair of ice cream bars for us while we watched Shark Tank in her living room one evening, I washed my hands before getting the food. And when I began to eat and she requested help with her wrapper, I put my food down, washed my hands again, and came back to help her… before washing my hands one more time and returning to my own food. And when I took our plates and garbage away? More hand-washing.
The next day, she asked to split a chocolate bar (notice that she has an epic sweet tooth?) in a spontaneous moment when I hadn’t washed my hands: I broke off half for myself, removed my portion, and extended the rest to her still inside its wrapper to avoid directly touching her half.
I washed my hands after every single time I blew my nose or had my fingers near my mouth (e.g., for eating). I also washed my hands before and after each time I touched my face — even if I was only applying moisturizer or eye cream to a clean face. Because touching your eye/nose/mouth area is always a risk.
I probably also washed my hands every time I handled my toothbrush too.
No amount of hand washing was too much. And rightly so.
I was purposeful about towels and toiletries.
In the kitchen, I only used the shared towel by the sink immediately after washing my hands. In the guest bathroom, I didn’t use the shared towel at all… and I kept my towel somewhere separate (i.e., off the shared towel rack). I also brought my own toothpaste instead of using the guest toothpaste. And I kept my personal hygiene items in the guest room, rather than the bathroom, so that they couldn’t come into contact with anyone else. Yes, including skincare products — since I touch those containers after touching my face.
I avoided touching buttons, switches, and handles.
For years, to varying degrees, I’ve had a habit of trying not to touch handles, light switches, etc. directly with my fingertips, and trying not to open or close cabinets or appliances by their handles. When I must use a handle, I try to use a part of my body other than my “germy” fingertips or palm to do so (e.g., elbow, wrist, knuckles, back of the hand). Otherwise I use a portion of my clothing (or something disposable, like a clean tissue or paper towel) as a barrier between my skin and the handle itself.
Since childhood, I’ve exhibited some OCD tendencies. Sometimes they’ve made for a miserable ride. But in a pandemic? My brain’s ability to laser-focus on the finer points of risk-and-safety potentialities has become a superpower — and it likely avoided some hand-contact covid spread at my relatives’ house.
No hugging or kissing.
This is tough; we’re Italian-American, and every bit as expressively affectionate as the stereotypes. Universally, though, humans crave physical contact instinctively, and it can be wonderful to our wellbeing.
Alas, in this bizarre era, physical contact might kill someone.
So I’ve adapted: I haven’t hugged, kissed, or even held hands with anyone in that house in close to a year. The most I do is pat my grandmother on the shoulder of her flannel house dress as a good-bye gesture — careful not to breathe on her or even to have my face near hers when I do this (she sits, I stand).
I hate not being able to hug or kiss my family, but I’m very thankful I made that sacrifice.
Ultimately, I’m sure luck played a role too; if someone had, by chance, touched or walked through an area that my hands or breath had contaminated at the wrong moment, things could’ve gone very differently. I’m sure it also helped that my aunt’s delicate health (and her preference for order and cleanliness) impel her and my uncle to wash their hands and disinfect surfaces frequently. Everyone was super-careful.
That said, I can’t lie and claim that I took all precautions 100% religiously in every single moment. In fact, some of the measures I took (e.g., spending less quality time than I’d hoped) were merely fortuitous accidents. As I said before: it’s very easy to let your guard down around people you trust.
And that’s perhaps the biggest risk of spending time in someone else’s house during this pandemic: even if you have the best of intentions, everyone makes mistakes — and it is agonizing (trust me) to worry that a single careless moment of your own might become the reason that a loved one, or anyone else, contracts this awful virus.
I felt a moral obligation to share how I supplemented basic common-sense measures to keep my family safe, and thank God I did. But my BEST advice is not even to put yourself in such a situation.
You will never regret not having exposed people to COVID-19.
For more advice on COVID-19 and social gatherings, please view this CDC resource.