A sign in downtown Murphys lists ways for visitors to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, including wearing a face covering to protect others.

You can’t mention COVID-19 in the Mother Lode without hearing from someone who thinks they’ve already had it. I should know, as I’m one of those people. Or rather, I sincerely hope I’ve already passed through the rigors of this awful disease and am no longer a danger to my loved ones.

The recent discovery in Santa Clara County that the first COVID-19 death in California occurred at least as early as February has served as potent fuel for this train of thinking. Let’s face it: we were all sick last winter. There were some nasty bugs going around that landed some of us a trip to the emergency room with symptoms that, in retrospect, look a lot like “The Rona.”

What are those symptoms, exactly? Fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, diarrhea, body aches, chills, fatigue, a headache—COVID-19 patients have reported experiencing all of these. And some of them. And none of them.

Hence, many are certain they survived the disease months ago, and a ubiquitous lack of testing availability isn’t helping to clear their suspicions. In an Enterprise poll (which represents less than .3% of the Calaveras County population) 48 people said they thought they’d already had COVID-19, either last winter or more recently, while 57 said they didn’t think they’d had it, and 27 said they were unsure. Yet with just 327 negative test results confirmed in the county and 13 positive, that leaves over 45,000 residents who should have no clue whether or not they’ve been infected.

Nonetheless, an Enterprise Facebook post surveying the public received an onslaught of responses from locals who suspect they had it as early as Thanksgiving. Some have assigned tragedies to the disease, wondering if their elderly loved ones may have succumbed to COVID-19 months before testing was available. One 59-year-old woman from Sutter Creek reported having “all the symptoms” of COVID-19 in January. An influenza test at Sutter Amador Hospital came back negative, strengthening her belief that she had the disease.

Another woman from Murphys said the plethora of flu-like symptoms she experienced in December were so severe that she could hardly catch her breath. Her cough lingered for months and, even now, she gets winded more easily than before.

“I swear I had COVID,” she wrote. She was relieved when her doctor secured her an antibody test for the novel coronavirus last week. It came back negative.

“Honestly, I was (so) bummed that my test was negative,” she said. Like many others, she’d hoped that the county’s relatively low number of confirmed cases was due to people like her already getting through it.

Indeed, it would be a stunning revelation if most of our community had, in fact, already passed through the pandemic with barely a scratch. It was this vision of a shimmering oasis—an island that had weathered the storm—which led me to call my doctor last week after a night with a low-grade fever, body aches and shortness of breath. I was forwarded to the Tuolumne County Public Health COVID-19 triage line. Did I have any underlying conditions? No. Was I exposed to another known case? Not that I knew of. I was told to stay home and come in for treatment if things got scary.

My inquiries with the Calaveras County side of things yielded similar answers, as did a qualifying questionnaire for a drive-through testing station in Stanislaus County. I was upset. I wanted to know if my family members were at risk. An email correspondence with Calaveras County Health Officer Dr. Dean Kelaita confirmed the widespread shortage of tests. Current policies dictate that hospitalized individuals, those in high-risk settings and those who have been exposed to known cases are more likely to receive testing than the average Joe with a cough.

Though I’d heard through community chatter that tests were a rarity, my own experience confirmed that there are countless others like me who could be infected and may not know it.

I’m still holding out for an antibody test. I want to have had COVID-19. I want to be immune (if exposure to the coronavirus truly causes immunity, which has yet to be determined). I want to go to summertime events and see my friends and coworkers again. I’m tired of being alone all the time. I’m tired of worrying about my loved ones and whether I will still have a job next week. Like the protestors who took to the streets of Valley Springs last weekend, I desperately want things to go back to normal.

But as your friendly neighborhood reporter, I have some more bad news: I probably didn’t have it. And if you think you had it last winter, you probably didn’t, either. You might have, particularly if you were on a cruise ship or traveling somewhere more populated, but you probably didn’t.

If there is anything our scant number of positive tests results show, it’s that we have a population majority that is still vulnerable to infection. What’s more, with the sliver of population that has been tested yielding 13 confirmed cases (and a transmission rate reported at around two new cases for each confirmed one), we can assume that there are a lot more people walking around with COVID-19 than we realize.

Even with the confirmation of earlier cases in California, Dr. Kelaita estimates that just 5 to 10% of the American population has contracted COVID-19. It’s possible that a few Mother Lode residents had it before March, but the evidence doesn’t point to a full-on outbreak. With just eight ICU beds available in Calaveras County during that time, one would think we’d have gotten word of a wave of critically ill patients. Considering the dreadful scenes that unfolded in Wuhan and Bergamo and New York, it seems too good to be true that we could sneak by with a pandemic free pass.

If Kelaita and other health officials are correct in their projections, then we should all be wearing masks. As the nation emerges from isolation in the coming weeks, I hope that we can all return to work and resume something resembling the lives we had before. But we must do it wearing masks—without exception.

As most of us now know, studies have shown that a homemade cloth mask doesn’t do much to protect the wearer from infection, but it does significantly lower the likelihood of the wearer infecting others. For this reason, our current situation doesn’t allow for any complacency from those like me who suspect they’ve had COVID-19. As a public service to others, we must assume we didn’t have it and remain vigilant. It only works if we all do it.

I get it. Masks are uncomfortable and inconvenient and kind of creepy to wear. But we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. By all means, live out your right to protest peacefully. When that play button is pressed, go gleefully into the world and savor all that you’ve missed with a renewed vigor. And, for the love of your community, wear a mask.


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