After a festive Christmas morning with my husband and three young kids, I got an email with bad news. One of the staff had tested positive at the childcare centre where my kids had spent the day on December 23.
Before having my mom over for dinner, we busted out our stashof rapid antigen tests and swabbed all three kids. I thought it was a long shot to catch it this early, yet knew that Omicron had a reputation for being fast. My twin six-year-old girls were negative (phew!), but my ten-year-old son’s test had a very faint band. You really had to squint to see it.
A second test, with a different brand, also showed a faint band. At that point, I assumed the worst — that we had caught the virus on the cusp of takeoff. Hubby wasn’t convinced and wondered if it may be a false positive. We erred on the side of caution and called off Christmas dinner. We also began treating our son as if he were positive, taking as many precautions as we could, including masks and distance in shared spaces at home.
Sadly, I was right (normally, I’d celebrate, but not this time). We re-tested the next morning, and my son’s test was bright pink positive. Viral replication had taken off. As with many kids, my son had no obvious symptoms and the isolation was the hardest part of the ordeal for him. Only when I asked him, did I learn he had a slightly stuffy nose.
We were lucky to have a hearty stash of rapid tests and the scientist in me couldn’t resist the opportunity for a case study. As expected, the rapid test signal started weak, became strong for several days, then gradually faded, reflecting viral takeoff, battle, and defeat. You could still see a very faint signal even on day 8, especially with a digital photo and zoom. The first truly negative test was on day 10.
Our ten days of within-family isolation were hard in unexpected ways. It broke my heart to have to constantly remind my son “Don’t touch that! Back away! Give us space!”, and to insist that he sit across the room while the rest of us ate and played together. We did find some creative solutions, like card games at a distance, but there was a lot of frustration for all of us. At the same time, I reflected on how lucky we were to have a comfortable place to isolate, financial security, and a supportive community that delivered goodies to our door.
There were definitely moments when I wondered if we should just throw in the towel and “get it over with”. I am well aware that our chances of severe outcomes are very slim. It also crossed my mind that getting COVID together could spare us from multiple bouts of split-family isolation, and even reduce the risk that we would unknowingly spread it to my mom in the next few months.
What kept me going is the fact that COVID-19 is a highly unpredictable beast. There IS a chance that one of us could have an unexpected, severe outcome, or face months of “long COVID”. Yes, our odds are low, but why take a chance when you can avoid it? There are other good reasons to wait as well, including protecting our overwhelmed healthcare systems, and sitting tight as new treatment options roll out. We also simply have no idea how long or strong our natural immunity will be. This article from Dear Pandemic provides a great case for not “getting it over with”.
I also often wondered if it was futile to try to spare the rest of us from getting Omicron, given its extreme contagiousness. I’m happy to report that it’s definitely not futile. Our precautions worked, and nobody else in our family got it. The first household transmission studies of Omicron (see preprint) confirms our experience — household transmission of Omicron is not inevitable (but more likely than with the delta variant). Check out this post for more on how we handled COVID in our home, including separate sleeping areas and stellar N95 calibre masks for the whole family.
I’ve been following COVID closely as a science communicator for two years. Now that it’s truly hit home, my advice is a blend of personal and scientific. As you navigate this latest wave, please consider the following:
- Don’t throw in the towel if COVID-19 infiltrates your home. Use as many layers of protection as you can, and don’t underestimate the power of stellar masks.
- Take advantage of rapid antigen tests to catch COVID early and limit spread. Testing more than once, if negative, is vital, as they don’t always catch Omicron as early as they did for our family (read more in this post I wrote for Dear Pandemic, and see this recent preprint study).
- Be aware of potentially silent (yet contagious) COVID-19 cases, especially in kids. If your kids were likely exposed, but not showing symptoms, you may have to take matters in your own hands. Had we not tested our son, he would certainly have spread within our household, and possibly to my mom, who was making stuffing when we broke the bad news. If you can’t access tests, take every possible precaution after an exposure.
- Bear in mind that there is a reasonable chance you are still contagious well after the widely adopted guideline of 5 days of isolation plus 5 days of masking. I understand that public health policies involve tradeoffs, and that society would grind to a halt if we optimized for stopping every single transmission. My plea is to take precautions seriously for at least ten days, including N95 calibre masks to limit spread if you end your isolation earlier.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you do get COVID despite taking precautions. Omicron is a formidable foe. Many of the most careful people I know are getting it.
Last but least, I want to recognize that my story is a privileged one. We were able to afford a stash of rapid tests, that we purchased in the fall. We have enough space to isolate our son. We have flexible jobs that we can do from home and take time off. It is a lot easier to stave off Omicron with these privileges.
At the same, small actions can be very impactful and every layer of protection does count. Even a single N95 mask, on the infected person, can slash transmission. Vaccines can also make a big difference. They are far from bulletproof, but they do substantially reduce your risk of getting all COVID variants to date (especially if boosted), and are particularly powerful at reducing severe disease. I urge you to take advantage of as many layers as you can.
I wish you and your family the very best as we navigate this pandemic and hope that our story was helpful.
Chana Davis, PhD