After two years of dodging COVID, it finally got me where I least expected it: at an outdoor garden party on a sunny afternoon. A friend of mine hosted a small group in her backyard to say goodbye before moving away. We did all the usual things one does at a goodbye party: we chatted, snapped group photos, and ate snacks she had cleared out of her pantry. Just as my family and I were getting ready to leave, a final guest showed up whom I hadn’t seen in some time. I hugged her, excited to connect before we headed home.
After five minutes of catching up, my family and I left the party — and would find out later that I had contracted COVID from this final, extremely brief interaction.
I live with my husband and his 90-year-old father, a man born in Nicaragua who has survived a political revolution, a civil war, and a bout of typhoid fever which left him with partial lung function. Because of this, we have been among the strictest households I know when it comes to COVID mitigation.
During the height of the pandemic before vaccines were available, we took it a step further than masking indoors; we actually stopped going inside any buildings other than our house for several months. I once quarantined at a friend’s cabin for 10 days after going to the doctor — just in case I’d picked up COVID. These days, my family still masks when we go inside stores. We always dine outdoors when we go to restaurants.
But over 2 years into the pandemic, with all of us fully vaccinated and boosted, we were enjoying time spent outdoors with friends. We thought we understood that COVID spread far less rapidly in outdoor settings, and so we assumed our risk was low. But that was before the BA.5 strain.
Two days after the garden party, I started to feel a sore throat and a twinge of tiredness. It gradually grew into a 102-degree fever and a debilitating headache. Though it took a full 24 hours for my rapid tests to show up as positive, I suspected COVID and immediately quarantined myself in an upstairs bedroom at the first signs of fever.
Thankfully, we had taken others’ advice and prepared ourselves for the extremely likely scenario that we would contract COVID: we had purchased a pulse oximeter to test our blood oxygen levels, we had a stash of extra pantry items and over-the-counter painkillers, and we had a quarantine plan. Because we only have one bathroom in the house, we set up a HEPA air purifier in it. We sprayed everything we touched with a disinfectant spray proven to kill coronaviruses. I spent one lonely week battling COVID in isolation.
My husband developed COVID a few days after me, and — in what felt like either a miracle or hard work (or a combination of both) — my father-in-law never got sick. We are so grateful.
When we as individuals pay attention to COVID, we are helping ourselves to live healthier lives. Just as importantly, we are protecting the most vulnerable people in our community, including my father-in-law. At this stage in the pandemic, we have all heard the recommendations: Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Keep an eye on COVID numbers in your area via local news outlets and your social circle. Depending on your local numbers and your risk tolerance, mask indoors — and potentially outdoors, too. Order free tests from www.covidtests.gov (every household in the US is eligible for a third round of tests, and my family blew through twenty government-issued tests during this bout of COVID).
If you haven’t already, sit down with your household members to develop a plan for what you’ll do if someone has an exposure or develops COVID. If you get COVID, make a list of everyone you came into contact with in the days prior, and reach out to them. This will help them minimize the damage if they too get sick.
I didn’t expect to get COVID at a small backyard garden party. But I’m glad my family had a plan when we did.
Julie Louisa Hagenbuch is a writer and photographer based in Milton, PA. She is the owner of the photography studio CANISTER and the director of the storytelling project Stories on Tap.