“I’m sharing this story in case you get the same call I did.”
By Ted Mason
Bureau of Land Management National Fire Safety Program Manager
My older brother Danny stopped at my house in Boise, Idaho for a week-long visit before continuing to Seattle to care for our other brother Jim, who was recovering from chemotherapy. Three days after he left my house I gave him a phone call. Imagine how awful I felt when I had to tell my brother: “Hey Bro, hate to tell you this but I just tested positive for coronavirus.” I felt horrible saying it. I feared I infected my brother Danny, or worse, I indirectly infected my other brother Jim. I literally feared for their lives. I anguished over the thought that my brother Jimmy might survive cancer only to die from coronavirus—which he may have contracted from me!
The day after Danny left my house, I noticed a sporadic cough that did not seem right. It was raspy and came from the bottom of my lungs. To be safe, I called the local health department and was able to get tested the next day. I called Danny and told him as a precaution he should stay away from Jimmy until I hear the test results. “It’s probably allergies,” I told him.
The results only took three more days to come back. The health department confirmed my positive test result and asked a lot of questions. What are my symptoms and when did they start? Where have you been for the last 14 days? I answered the best I could. I had no fever (never did) but the cough continued and my muscles were sore and stiff. A dull headache persisted and I was very tired and getting weaker by the day.
But on the positive side, it wasn’t like a regular flu where I would be down for the count, confined to my bed for three days and then wake up and it’s over. For me, the coronavirus gave me a mild cough, a weak headache and sore muscles, and a nagging tiredness, but I could function just fine. I could get up, walk around, eat, and continue to work from home. I was also getting the best sleep of my life. I could fall asleep anytime, which was often, and sleep undisturbed for 9-11 hours some nights.
I had to take some sick leave on the days when I was void of energy and needed an afternoon nap. But for the most part, I was able to perform my job. Although my symptoms were mild, they did last for 21 days! I woke up every morning thinking I would have a symptom-free day only to be disappointed as the symptoms continued to show themselves.
Guilty and Ashamed
While happy my symptoms were relatively mild, I was surprised at how guilty and ashamed I felt for catching the virus in the first place. As the Bureau of Land Management’s National Wildland Fire Safety Program Manager, I was at the forefront of the COVID-19 outbreak and the development of initial guidance for the wildland fire community to deal with it. I was very careful, adhered to all CDC guidelines on mask wearing, and maintained social distance. Our house was loaded with Clorox wipes and Purell hand sanitizer. I worked from home along with my wife and only went out for necessities.
Despite my efforts to avoid any social gatherings, the State of Idaho began the coronavirus re-opening process in late June. My daughter’s high school decided to conduct a socially-distanced high school graduation in the open-air football field. Students stayed on the football field, while parents stayed in the stands every other row. Masks were required walking in and out, but once in your seat you could take them off. After the ceremony, parents could meet the students on the field for pictures but were instructed to maintain social distance.
All went as planned. However, I quickly realized that sitting every other row did not provide six-feet of separation. I kept my mask on but I seemed to be the only one doing so. After the ceremony, I went on the field and quickly found myself in several group pictures where masks were being taken off for the photos. Outside of this gathering, the only other place I could have been exposed were the few occasions I went to the grocery store for supplies. My daughter’s high school graduation event occurred seven days before I started coughing.
A New Understanding of Colleague’s Previous Guilt
As soon as I received the test results I remembered my work colleague from the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety disclosing at a previous meeting that she tested positive for COVID after being on assignment in Atlanta screening airline passengers at the airport. She had to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel before she could travel home.
I remembered her telling us how guilty she felt because, despite following proper procedures and wearing the proper PPE, she must have made a mistake somewhere and she “let herself get infected.” She talked about how embarrassing it was to admit she was sick and how worried she was about who she may have infected. She felt bad for the folks who visited her room daily to bring food and supplies.
At the time, while I felt a great sympathy for her, I thought she was being too hard on herself. After all, she didn’t get the virus on purpose or through reckless behavior. I didn’t understand why she would put so much guilt on herself. It wasn’t her fault. Blaming herself for contracting this virus was not fair and I knew that.
However, when I got that call from my local health department with the positive test results I immediately thought of my colleague and I knew exactly what she meant about feeling guilty. I wanted to call her and tell her she wasn’t alone in those thoughts and how much I appreciated her sharing that with the group.
Knowing her story somehow made it easier to cope with my own. The news wasn’t quite as harsh. Although I still felt immense guilt and shame for catching COVID, I knew there wasn’t any good reason to feel that way.
Brothers’ Test Results: Negative
The guilt, however, is still there and it’s very real. I was panicked for six more days waiting for my brothers’ test results. Luckily, they both came back negative. It was a big relief. I often wonder how I would have felt if they would have caught the virus, perhaps had much more severe symptoms than I did, or worse, died from complications to COVID. Thinking about it makes me shudder.
My wife tested positive five days after I did. I’m fairly certain she caught it from me. This made me feel horrible. Fortunately, her symptoms were mild as well and only lasted about 10 days. My daughter, luckily, tested negative and confined herself to her bedroom for two weeks.
I’m sharing this story in case you get the same call I did: “Mr. Mason, your coronavirus test came back positive.” I hope this blog makes that news just a little easier to bear. COVID guilt is a real thing. But you should think twice before blaming yourself.