Strong friendships help a breakthrough COVID-19 case pass without serious complications

On the morning of day four of the visit, Becky announced that she couldn’t smell or taste anything.

“I put the tea tree oil right up to my nose, and I could feel the tingling sensation but nothing else.”

We provided an assembly line of items for her to smell. Clementine rinds, coffee beans, vanilla. We egged her on, telling her to push the orange further up her nostril. Nope, nope, and nope.

After over a year of initially very scrupulous and then, post-vaccine, cautious but not airtight precaution, I knew my time had arrived. Even with my vaccine, I was very likely to catch COVID-19.

Our close friends Becky and Bailey from Reno, Nevada, flew up to visit us so we could celebrate our respective October wedding anniversaries. There was even more special backstory for the visit — the last time they’d been in Alaska was when Becky proposed to Bailey in 2016. My husband and I helped set up the mountainside engagement, taking plenty of photos and busting out the bubbly from our backpacks when Bailey said yes.

Since the last visit, we’d moved from Anchorage to Palmer and we were excited to share our new(ish) home with our friends. We also booked a cabin for a couple nights in Denali State Park. Wes and I planned a surprise semi-reenactment of their engagement, but instead of the Turnagain Arm Trail we’d hike the Curry Ridge Trail, hopefully gain a spectacular view of Denali, and bust out homemade cupcakes in the maple cinnamon flavor profile of their Vermont wedding.

What actually happened is, we canceled the two-night cabin stay, went for languid walks around the neighborhood, and on their anniversary night when we presented the cupcakes, only Bailey was able to actually taste anything. We wouldn’t have been able to see Denali anyway: the 10-day forecast was rain, ending in partial sun on the day they were scheduled to depart.

Our friends got to see a lot of our home. We watched endless Halloween movies, kept the tea kettle going nonstop, played games when we were up for it, and wrapped ourselves in blankets like mummies. Outside adventure? Not so much.

Here’s the thing about this kind of situation: when the reality starts sinking in that it’s likely COVID in the house, and we’re all very likely to catch it since we’ve been in close proximity and vaccines can only protect you so much from that kind of viral load (listen to me throwing around fancy terms — I’m a layman epidemiologist; aren’t we all by now?) there are a few different ways to react.

One way is to freak out. Another is to accept it.

It was late the night of day three of the visit that Becky realized she really didn’t feel well. Her symptoms had started with a tiny scratch in the back of her throat on day one, which we all chalked up to dry, sometimes smoky air from the woodstove. We set her up with a humidifier.

But then the sore throat, aches, and fever set in. From bed at 2 a.m., Bailey booked the COVID test appointments for the following morning.

I learned about it while taking my first sip of morning coffee. Bailey came downstairs, calmly relayed the events from the evening, and said matter-of-factly that of course they would understand if they needed to find somewhere else to stay.

Luckily, my husband and I responded in unison, even in our only-slightly caffeinated states: Absolutely not.

Because, back to my earlier point about reacting, the cat was out of the bag. Or, in this case, the COVID was in the house and in the air. We had shared car rides with the two of them. We ate meals together; got our grubby paws all over Settlers of Catan pieces and cooked in the same kitchen. We had accepted the risk of traveling, with all of us vaccinated, and spending time inside. We were therefore fully in it together.

What I am proudest of and also most unnerved by is that I spent so much time carefully avoiding contracting COVID to the best of my ability. I was fully locked down pre-vaccines, and then less so, but still cautious afterward. Our friends never stopped masking (I did, over the summer). I am proud because when it was clear that my calculated risk of having friends visit had put me at a strong likelihood of contracting COVID, I instinctively reacted with acceptance and wholeheartedness instead of fear. What I am unnerved by is that the Delta variant is contagious and prevalent enough to punch through reasonable precautions.

Weirdly, even though through COVID we were unable to do much of anything of the fun outdoor activities we’d all planned and were instead trapped in the house, we became closer friends through the ordeal and the visit.

I woke Becky and Bailey up early one morning with a soft knock on their door, saying simply: “aurora.” They came downstairs within a minute, pulling on coats as they went and stepping outside in pajama bottoms stuffed in boots. We gawked at the sky; it was a strong showing that lasted all the way until dawn.

We came up with a ritual around receiving our test results. One of us would blast the absurdly over the top EDM tune “Sandstorm” by Darude as another would take a video of the testee checking their official email.

We staged a COVID Situation Room at the kitchen table, with checklists of our to-do’s (re-book flights, call anyone we’d been in proximity to, call our poor parents, etc).

We had commemorative T-shirts made.

Ultimately, Becky, my husband, and I tested positive for COVID-19. All of ours were relatively mild breakthrough cases. Has it been fun? No. But are any of us in the hospital? Also, no.

In retrospect, what I would do differently is have all of us do a full PCR test prior to the visit, as another layer of protection. Becky’s symptoms came on way too fast after the flight for her to have contracted it during travel.

Still, hindsight is 20/20. This lesson learned is not about blame. I did my best with what I thought at the time. We all did.

Perversely, I’m excited for my antibodies. And, grateful that my level of immunity granted to me by my vaccine means I’ll likely be back on my feet very soon. I don’t recommend getting COVID-19. But if it had to happen, this was my best possible scenario.