72 hours of panic, paranoia and painting through a pandemic

Photo by Travis Gauthier
A sign advertising Covid testing during Lafayette's summer surge

Since the pandemic, I’ve worn many hats. One week, I helped demo and rebuild the rotted subfloor of a single bedroom in an Airbnb. I’ve worked in a commercial fermentation lab and made kombucha deliveries to restaurants and grocery stores. I’ve also freelanced for The Current. This week, it’s late May, and I’m a house painter. 

It’s day 11 on this job. Some days are longer than others — mainly due to the fact we work around the rain and high humidity. As a painter, you check the weather a lot. Conveniently, I am painting the house I live in, a deal worked out with my landlord in exchange for rent relief. 

For this job, my roommate and I work atop a lean-to wood scaffold he constructed. We move the framework along each side of the house — a ranch-style brick and wood paneled residence in the Saint Streets — to reach the peaks of the 20-foot-high gables. 

Checking my phone for the weather, I see a missed call from my girlfriend, Stephanie, and a text: “Call me ASAP.” I call back, walking outside. “Is everything ok?” I ask. “Well,” she answers. “No.”

Her 13-year-old daughter’s stepmom had gone in to her doctor for a routine wellness checkup this morning. She registered a slight fever of 100.6. Out of precaution, the doctor suggested she take a COVID-19 test. It was positive. 

“We need to go get tested,” Steph tells me. In fact, she and her daughter are on their way now. I should put off work. The free testing site in the Oil Center would only be open till noon today before shutting down for the weekend. We discuss getting there. Our voices get louder. My internal alarms are screaming to stay calm. I’ll ride with them.

We — Steph, her daughter and I — all mask up. This makes us shout a bit as we question each other and debate directions on the drive. Who was the source? Who had been out most? And who else has potentially been exposed? As the primary shopper for our quarantine group, I was already a prime suspect for patient zero, as was Steph’s ex-husband, Dave (men being of course reportedly more susceptible). Dave and his wife Jen (who had just tested positive) had been out at a small birthday party the previous weekend with a small group of other couples. I had visited my parents, along with Steph and her daughter, for my mom’s birthday over the weekend.

We argue over the best way to enter and circle into the testing site parking lot. The teen in the back seat remains calm and collected. She just has one question: A negative test result is the positive outcome we want, right?

We recognize the car and people in front of us. Then a car pulls in behind us, folks we also know. And another. We soon realize these are the other couples who had been at the party with Jen and Dave. As more cars arrive, the whole procession seems to be from our contact list, forming a horseshoe shaped line around the medical tent. Having arrived some five minutes after us, Dave is now positioned near the end of the line almost directly across from us, idling at the front. I watch the chain of telephone calls in the cars before me. Steph on the phone with Dave, telling him we were just told it may take a week to get these results. Dave, mouthing the words back: A week? He hangs up and is calling back to Jen and ahead to other members of this growing circle. One by one, everyone in their cars picking up the phone, talking to each other, repeating the conversation on down the line. A week?! 

We get tested. A medical professional comes to the car wearing a face shield and presses a long swab all the way up my nose, swirling several times, prodding the frontal sinus. We could have results in three days, they tell us, but with the weekend, it may be longer. 

Photo illustration by Travis Gauthier

I debate calling my parents. We shared a meal days ago — that I cooked. We had tried to social distance, but hadn’t worn masks. Right now, my parents are en route to Florida to visit their grandkids for the first time all year, a trip they’ve been agonizing over for a month. 

We get the name of the clinic Jen had been to in River Ranch with instant results. Dave and the daughters all get finger-prick blood tests. All negative. We breathe sighs of relief. I decide to hold off on calling my parents. 

Waiting for results, there’s not much else you can do. Not feeling sick, we still need to isolate. Life is on pause, but continues. We order pizza. Fully masked and sanitized, I walk into a site I hadn’t seen in some time: a busy restaurant. Guests fill the inside and patio seating smiling, laughing, drinking wine, soaking up the experience of being out in public. Staff aside, few people are in masks.

It somehow seems like people are on to me; the possibility that I could be among a group on the vanguard of a dreaded second wave of positive cases, that we could undo everyone’s hard work to flatten the curve, that we may all have to go back home and start over. I feel their stares over their wine glasses, as if to say, you better not ruin this for all of us. 

Back home, I try to resign myself to strict quarantine. 

As things unravel in the outside world, coronavirus keeps us focused inward. Maybe I’m asymptomatic? Worse yet, maybe I’m not? I start to notice a bit of a sore throat. At first it seems like nothing but now I can’t help but wonder. Is this it? Is this how it starts? 

After I confess to Steph, she admits to feeling some symptoms too, though hers are different. Sore throat, upset stomach, slight headache. Between the two of us we are starting to check all the boxes. But are we being paranoid? Could it just be the paint fumes? 

Monday comes and goes without any word on our results. We play games. We learn Settlers of Catan and try out The Oregon Trail card game, an updated version packaged with arcade-style pixelated graphics and the promise of more carnage: “Features 5 New Ways to Die!”

Tuesday morning I wake up feeling well physically, but restless. My parents are texting pictures of their trip — all six of them looking a little too close together around a fire pit on the beach, with the messages: “Another beautiful day at the beach!” And “Happy Birthday Joaquin!”

I restart my painting routine. Unlike others in our group, I’m grateful to have a job I don’t have to reconfigure this week. I’m checking the weather but really I’m waiting for the phone call with our results. I work a half hour and check again. A text from Steph. “Swab Tests Negative,” it reads. After an hour, I still haven’t gotten word of my results. Not able to stand it, I get the number of the clinic from Steph and call directly.

“Ah yes, I was just about to call you,” says the testing director. “You tested negative.” 

Relief and gratitude pour out. I can’t thank her enough, explaining how grateful we are and sorry to have called but I had been nervous when I hadn’t heard after the other members in my group got their results. “That’s OK,” she says. “Everyone in your group tested negative?” Yes, I say, we did. “Good. Well, y’all keep doing what you’re doing.” 

I smile at this last remark. Not model citizens in peak health, or the perfectly quarantined family unit, we nevertheless survive this scare with no lasting scars. Dave’s swab test also comes back negative. And then Thursday afternoon Jen, who had gone to a different location for a confirmation swab test, finally gets that test result — also negative.

So how does all this happen? I talk to Jen, the person at the head of the whole chain of events. She had a scheduled checkup with her general practitioner, where a nurse took her temperature. With a fever of 100.6, she was told she would not be allowed in (her high temperature was twice verified). Per the clinic’s protocol, she needed to wait in her car, and decide if she wanted to take an immediate test for Covid-19. Out of precaution, she opted to get the test, and nurses came to her car to take the finger-prick blood sample. They returned with news she had tested positive. She couldn’t believe it. 

 “I was totally feeling fine,” Jen tells me. “I had no idea I had a fever. I was planning to go do a 10-mile run when I got home.” Disbelief turned to panicked phone calls.

Near the beginning of the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to practically all serology tests developed for COVID-19, and confusion has been rampant. 

While the diagnosis was surprising, the clinic maintained Jen’s test results showed an active infection. When later that day Dave and the daughters all went to the clinic to get the same test (all came back negative), we discovered the results came from an IGM serology, or antibody assay (total cost for these tests was about $250). 

There are two main types of antibody tests, both of which can be taken by a quick and easy finger-pick blood sample: IGM and IGG. IGM are the first antibodies you produce after infection with COVID-19, beginning about five days after infection. A positive result on an IGM test (like the one Jen took) can mean you are still infected, or have just recently recovered from Covid-19. IGG antibodies by contrast don’t develop until a couple weeks after infection. Positive IGG tests typically only show that someone has been exposed to Covid-19 at some point but should no longer be infectious (antibodies can also guard against re-infection, a prized value in their detection). How long these antibodies stay in your system is still unknown.

Dr. Tina Stefanski, the Acadiana regional medical director for the state Office of Public Health, says the market has been flooded with a range of products, many of which should not be relied on for diagnostic purposes. Near the beginning of the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to practically all serology tests developed for COVID-19, and confusion has been rampant. (Antibody tests are not counted in the state’s tally of tests.)

The FDA itself is walking back its initial green light, now requiring its approval for antibody tests and even calling back some tests from the market. Stefanski suggests anyone getting an antibody test ask if the test is FDA-approved and ask for guidance in interpreting results. 

“There were a lot of these antibody tests that were pushed out and kind of sold to clinicians as maybe these are valid accurate tests,” Stefanski says. “Well since then, the FDA has kind of started to reign that in.” 

Viral swab tests remain somewhat scarce, Stefanski says, partially due to all the testing supplies and reagent chemicals needed to perform them. Antibody tests, by contrast, are attractively abundant, fast and easy to conduct.

“So there are some doing these antibody tests,” she says, “because that is what’s available to them.”

Jen recalls being told she had an active coronavirus infection and contends her test was never qualified as an antibody result. Her general practitioner paid a visit to her at her car, offering a prescription if she began to develop symptoms. They also recommended her immediate family be tested and that she quarantine.

After her initial test, Jen went to the extreme with her quarantine — total isolation. She went into her room. Slept. Read. Watched videos. Her family delivered her meals to her bedroom door in contactless fashion. And then, she started to paint. “I decided that I was gonna just paint my bathroom,” she says. It’s a project that I always wanna work on and I never have time. I’m locked in my room with my bathroom, I may as well paint it.’”

There had been a period in late February when Jen, her daughter and Dave had all had a flu-like illness. Could it have been Covid? “We all kind of thought that maybe we had it,” Jen says, “but then why would their tests all have been negative and mine positive? It makes more sense that I would have had a false positive than them both having a false negative.”

All of our testing, quarantining, panic and stress stemmed from a faulty diagnosis from the start. At first this realization is frustrating. How could such an important test go so wrong? Is the system working? Ultimately, though, we did find our way to reliable viral testing, free of charge, even if it took a few days to get results. Our healthcare professionals are working hard to make that happen. I know our stress and inconvenience pales in comparison to the suffering many are enduring.

Having navigated this once should prove useful. We may very well need to do it again. “Be patient,” Stefanski recommends. “When we consider this is a new virus, I think we will continue to see improvement in the ability to more rapidly identify this virus and with more accuracy.”

For the moment, it feels good to venture out again, while taking necessary precautions. Coming home, I get a landscape view of our house, which sits high on a slight ridge near City Hall. The scaffolding now moved to the back, the front of the house shines proudly in its bright new coat, its aging cracks and blemishes covered over, ready for another decade of weathering. It’s a short gratification, followed by the reminder there’s still work to do. I don’t know what job it’ll be next week. But for now, I need to finish painting the carport.