I am getting over a cold: a sneezy, sniffly, thoroughly unpleasant and thoroughly unserious cold.
I know that it is not COVID. But you don’t.
I got this cold from my husband, who is tested regularly at work, so he knew for a fact that he didn’t have COVID. He also knew for a fact that his symptoms were due to seasonal allergies. Look at that pollen count! (and give me a lick of your ice cream cone because I haven’t tried the Salted Oatmeal Cookie but it sure sounds interesting) and haven’t you noticed how every year I've been a little more congested during ragweed season? (oh, and is this YOUR toothbrush? Sorry.) Seasonal allergies, without a doubt! Until the day that the pollen count stayed high but his symptoms abated, at which point he declared that after all, what he’d had was a cold! Who knew?
I did, at that point; because by then I had the cold (not COVID; but you don’t know that).
In terms of the actual experience, it might as well have been COVID, as I’ve heard it described by vaccinated/boosted friends who’ve come down with it during the Omicron wave: body aches, congestion, exhaustion. As for possible long-term cognitive side effects, I will just say that in the course of the week I watched the second season of Bridgerton in its entirety, and I am definitely the stupider for it.
I know full well that there are real differences between my pedestrian virus and COVID. If either Steve or I have unwittingly infected any third parties with this cold, we can be fairly certain that we didn’t land them in the hospital. Anyway, colds are harder to spread than COVID. One of the most useful concepts I picked up during two years of obsessive pandemic news-hounding is R0 ( “R-naught”). R0 is the average number of other people to whom each infected individual transmits a particular disease. Bragging rights for the most infectious illness? Those belong to measles, with an R0 of 18. Current subvariants of Omicron may not be far behind, with R0 estimated between 7 and 14. Most cold viruses, on the other hand, have an R0 of less than 1. Which means that once Steve passed his seasonal allergies to me, he could declare his mission to be successfully complete.
But knowing I had an infectious something, even knowing for certain it was not a dangerous infectious something, made me pull way back. I cancelled social engagements and kept pretty much to myself; later in the week, when I did venture into public places, I was sure to wear a mask. In part, I felt pretty crappy, and didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else feeling that way. But at least in equal part, I didn’t want to make others nervous that my sneezes my sneezes might be COVID-bearing. I knew they weren’t. But others wouldn’t know.
I get it. I, too, have been jumpy when in the vicinity of the sneezy. I’ve been on four flights in the past few months, and on two of them I was seated in close proximity to some fairly noticeable nose-blowing. The nose-blowers may have known they weren’t carrying COVID; but I certainly didn’t. I was somewhat comforted by the fact that at that time, on airplanes, we were all supposed to be wearing masks, except for when we took them off. I kept asking myself: does this poor congested soul REALLY need to eat those Biscoff cookies? For that matter: do I really need to eat mine?
Yeah, I did. Those were long flights. And nothing quite does the job on a long flight like a Biscoff and a Styrofoam cuppa.
Once upon a time, mere cold symptoms were not a reason to cancel anything: certainly not reason to stay home from work, and absent a fever, not a reason to stay home from school. If I’d kept my children home from school for every runny nose, my two twenty-something daughters would still be working their way through eighth grade.
Hard to recall after two pandemic years, but we used to make a virtue of sucking it up and getting on with our lives. I remember a commercial for a product that billed itself as the “keeps you going cold medicine:” the imperative was to suppress your symptoms and plow forward with your life. Here’s a 2008 article from WebMD including beauty tips for how to look healthy when you are out and about with a cold or the flu. WebMD, at least posing as a credible medical authority, was giving us tips for how to get out and circulate with our infectious diseases in full throttle.
Certainly, the pandemic has heightened our awareness of the ways in which our casual interactions can feed disease transmission. I, for one, would be perfectly delighted if our social norms (not to mention our public policies) supported anyone in at least the worst throes of an infectious disease to stay home and keep it to themselves rather than suck it up and carry on (and give it to me).
How much of this new sensitivity will stick? Hard to say. Two years ago, there were pundits who swore up and down that the handshake was dead forever. I, for one, have shaken a lot of hands since then. I am still washing my own hands whenever I walk into my house: but then again, I was doing so for years before COVID came into our lives. As for masks: it’s a topic on which I have well-informed and deeply-held beliefs, mostly self-contradictory. Call me if you want to hear more.
But this I can say for certain: Steve, next time you are faced with a flare-up of your seasonal allergies, the Salted Oatmeal Cookie ice cream is ALL MINE.