COVID While Traveling?
Yeah, Still a Thing
SUNDAY, JUNE 16, 2024 -- A funny thing happened on the way to last week's column: I caught COVID in London.

COVID? In 2024? When you're traveling? Yup. Yup. And yup.

COVID hasn't been a thing for so long that I'd taken the masks out of my carry-on bag. I only had the most basic meds (a few Advil) in my kit bag. And it was so long since I'd been vaccinated that I had to dig out my CDC card to remind myself I last got a jab in October, 2021.

But COVID isn't gone and, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker, both test-positivity rates and emergency-room visits are up over the last seven weeks. A JoeSentMe contributor tells me a friend was just back from Europe after a two-week bout. Another, she adds, caught it in Malta and was turned away from a cruise ship. And my wife's doctor tells me she's treated two or three other COVID cases just this week.

Naturally, none of this was on my mind last Sunday afternoon in London when I sat down at my laptop to bash out a column. But just a few words in, I felt exhausted and exercised the columnist's prerogative to take a work-avoiding nap.

Five or six hours later, I awoke and felt as if my brain was leaking every fact ever stored in there. I don't know how else to describe it but I couldn't make sense of anything. Ideas and concepts seemed to be physically swirling around me. I wandered from the bedroom to the living room, mumbled something incoherent to one of our traveling companions, then retreated to bed.

I remember dreaming a surreal river where all the leaking facts and concepts--and a few body parts--went floating by.

Then I woke again--Who knows when?--and tried to take an Advil. But my throat was so inflamed that the pill lodged there and I needed to drink two bottles of water to get it down.

On Monday, my wife tells me I had a slice of toast for breakfast, then fell back into bed for the rest of the day. But I have a receipt for dinner at a restaurant chosen by one of our traveling companions. All that I remember was oddly named bread--Dusty knuckle sourdough sticks with you--and a nicely charred onion. The woman who chose the place pronounced it disappointing, but, honest, I can't tell you more than grilled onion and sourdough with a name.

On Tuesday, I started coughing hard, bringing up copious amounts of phlegm and discharging even more disgusting material from other body parts. I remember eating four biscuits from a cracker box and Sky News broadcasting from a place called Grimsby in preparation for an election debate the next day. I was alternately freezing under bedcovers and soaking my robe with sweat.

We departed Wednesday afternoon and I must have been moving like the brainless Spock from the notoriously bad Star Trek episode called "Spock's Brain." Miraculously, my wife discovered a mask in her overcoat and I donned it, sparing my traveling companions during what seemed like the endless ride to Gatwick Airport. (Thankfully, they have tested negative.)

The flight home was a blur except for coughing and phlegm. The premium cabin was virtually empty so, thankfully, I exposed few. And I repeatedly urged the flight attendants to stay away from me.

But here's the odd(est) thing: Not for a moment did I think I had COVID. I've lived with exhaustion and mental fog and no eating and the other stuff for most of the last few years since my bouts of colitis and anemia. Didn't seem out of the ordinary. The ridiculously constricted throat? That's how I get colds and flus, so I just thought I was getting a severe whack.

It didn't occur to me that I might have COVID until Friday morning, when I started feeling better. I don't even know why I thought I might have it. But I dug up a box of self-tests and, of course, they'd expired earlier this year. Still, no harm to check, I decided.

Boom. Positive. Took another to be sure. Boom. Positive. Grabbed another box and tested my wife. Boom. Positive.

Still, I wasn't convinced. Made an appointment at the local pharmacy for tests. Grabbed our N95 masks, drove to the tests and, 25 minutes later, the pharmacy called to confirm COVID.

So I called my wife's doctor. She was clear-thinking as usual.

"When did your symptoms start?" she asked.

"Sunday," I said.

"Too late for you. Since you're feeling better, your best bet is to just ride it out. What about your wife?"

"Maybe Tuesday night? But she's mostly just been tired and a little headachey."

"Okay, I'll call in Paxlovid and if she's feeling any worse, start her on the pills immediately."

Thankfully, she's been feeling okay and we've isolated, which hasn't been hard. After rebounding Friday, we both basically wrote off yesterday and never even got out of bed. Today has been shaky. Blessedly, our traveling companions report they are fine and continue symptom free.

This column, to be honest, was difficult to write. Not emotionally. Physically. I've had to take a few rest breaks and down more OTC drugs. I'm not sure everything I've written here makes sense.

But mostly, I feel guilty. Guilty that I wasn't better prepared with masks and tests. Guilty that I didn't recognize the symptoms sooner and thus exposed more people than necessary. And, of course, guilty that I fell out just when I was starting to work on last week's material.

Some of that I can fix. My masks and self-tests have been repacked. I've backtracked and notified as many of the folks and locations as possible. And, I promise, I'll make up the missed news and opinions and deals that I owe you.

COVID. In 2004. On the road. Who'd a thunk it?