The Realities of Getting COVID, From the KQED Hosts Who've Been There

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A person in a blue sweater holds a thermometer in their hands while laying under a knit blanket.
Getting COVID can be a shock that temporarily upends your life. Three KQED hosts have advice for those on this journey. (Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels)

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We used to think of breakthrough cases of COVID in vaccinated people as being relatively rare. But the rise of the omicron variant has shown that's no longer the case.

We know booster shots help raise your protection against omicron, as public health officials urge everyone eligible for one to get one. We also know that being vaccinated still gives you greater protection against severe hospitalization and death.

Still, when a breakthrough case happens, it can be easy to feel surprise and shock. Just ask three of our own KQED hosts:

All three have experienced their own breakthrough COVID cases in the last months, and there's a lot they wish they'd known. If you've been wondering how a positive COVID test right now might affect your daily life, keep reading to learn about their experiences — from the symptoms and logistical stresses to the importance of self-care, and what they wish they could have planned for beforehand.

What are the common symptoms of a  breakthrough COVID case?

For Pendarvis Harshaw, the first sign of his COVID case in summer 2021 was losing his smell. "I got a bit of a cough and the first thing I remember was trying to spray some cologne and then smell it," he says. "That's when I was like, 'Wait, I can't smell my cologne.'"

KQED podcast host Pendarvis Harshaw (Lara Kaur/Community Portrait Pop-Up)

In Marisa Lagos's home, all of her family contracted the omicron variant over the holidays. For her, it showed up as what she calls "flu-like symptoms."

"I was in bed for a few days, just really fatigued. But nothing serious — nowhere even approaching, needing to go to the hospital," she says.

While most people with a breakthrough COVID case experience mild symptoms, you still should acknowledge that you’re sick and it won't feel great. And people experience symptoms differently.

Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of UCSF's Department of Medicine, told NPR that the terminology "mild" is really a catchall. It can go from being "a day of feeling crummy to being completely laid up in bed for a week, all of your bones hurt and your brain isn't working well."

Common COVID-19 symptoms, according to the CDC, include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

After a COVID home test and a drive-through rapid PCR test both came back positive, the realization sank in for Harshaw.

"I think I had one day where I was just, like, straight on the ground … laid out in a fetal position," he says.

As far as symptoms, he remembers a "little bit of the sniffles, a little bit of sneezing, definitely chills, body aches — you name it. ... Energy depleted, feeling like gravity is tenfold."

Alexis Madrigal says his early symptoms started with a "little tickle in the back of the throat" and a stuffy nose. "It wasn't really until the test came back positive that I was like, 'Oh, no.'"

Don't necessarily expect a COVID infection to register in your body like you assume it might, says Madrigal, who notes there was "nothing super distinctive" about his sickness at that early stage of testing.

"I did lose my sense of smell, but it was much later," he says.

KQED host Alexis Madrigal (Courtesy Alexis Madrigal)

When should you get a COVID test?

If you have a fever or a cough or feel any symptoms outlined by the CDC, you could have COVID-19 and should get tested. If you've come in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, get tested.

All of this advice comes with the big caveat: We know that finding a test fast, whether it's an onsite PCR test or an at-home test like a BinaxNOW kit, can be tricky — and, in the case of at-home tests, expensive. And you might have to be prepared to explore multiple options for getting a COVID test.

"I have to acknowledge that we are in a position of privilege," says Lagos, since she and her family "had access to a lot of at-home tests that we had bought prior to this scare ahead of seeing people for Christmas."

Looking for a COVID test near you in the Bay Area? Read our guide to finding one.

I'm fully vaccinated. When should I take a COVID test? 

Do you have symptoms? If so, try to find a test immediately.

The CDC recommends that if you've come into close contact with someone with COVID-19, fully vaccinated people should be tested five to seven days after your last exposure — i.e., when you came into contact with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19.

There is already evidence that the omicron variant may have a shorter incubation period than previous forms of COVID. But if you choose to test earlier than five days from an exposure, don't take an early negative result as definitive proof you don't have COVID. Keep testing, to be sure you're not infectious and inadvertently spreading COVID to others.

Lagos's story highlights the importance of repeat testing — and not accepting an early at-home negative result as a sign someone has no COVID risk.

"We had actually asked everybody to take those rapid tests [over the holidays], just to be safe," she says.  "And so we had tested ourselves and our kids. I did have one kid who had some minor cold symptoms and we tested him repeatedly. And he didn't come up positive until after Christmas, after we had seen people."

KQED host Marisa Lagos (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

I'm not yet vaccinated. When should I take a COVID test? 

If you're not fully vaccinated and are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, you should get tested immediately. If you're not fully vaccinated and have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, get tested immediately.

The CDC says you should get tested again five to seven days after your last exposure and immediately if you experience symptoms.

What steps should I follow if I test positive for COVID?

If you do test positive for COVID with an at-home test or a PCR test, don’t panic. Find a way to confirm your results with a second test while you plan to isolate yourself from anyone else in your household. The CDC has a specific checklist you can follow if you get sick. Read along for key takeaways and advice.

Reporting your positive COVID test
If you test positive for COVID on a PCR test, someone from the health department may call you as part of their contact tracing efforts to slow the spread of COVID.

However, if you test positive for COVID using a home antigen test, the California Department of Public Health says there are certain steps you should take to report your results when using an over-the-counter test.

  • Use the instructions on your test to self-report your COVID-positive results.
  • Some over-the-counter tests may have automatic reporting, while others require you to report your own results through an app on your phone.
  • If your test does not provide electronic reporting and you have health care coverage, you can share your results with a health care provider to receive appropriate medical care.

Kaiser says that if you have a positive home antigen test — whether you're symptomatic or not — you're considered positive for COVID and don't need to confirm with a PCR test, but you should still report your positive COVID-19 home test. If you're a Kaiser member, you can report your positive test using their positive COVID-19 home test e-visit tool.

As a journalist, Lagos says she can't help but be "struck" by what the lack of a consistent system for self-reporting positive home test results means for public COVID case numbers this winter.

"We're probably undercounting these pretty dramatically at this point," she says.

Talk to your people

If you've tested positive for COVID, it's essential that you let any of your close contacts know that they may have been exposed to the virus. Whether this is through a group text or a phone call, letting anyone you may have come into direct contact with gives others a chance to prepare and get tested themselves.

Madrigal says he began interrogating himself about whom he'd been in contact with — his neighbors, his mother-in-law and his children. "You kind of get in touch with folks, and they immediately want to go get tested," he said. "That's people's very natural reaction." But when is the best time for your close contacts to get tested?

The CDC says that someone with COVID-19 can spread the virus starting 48 hours or two days before the person has any symptoms or tests positive. For your fully vaccinated close contacts, it's best if they take their test five to seven days after their initial exposure of coming into contact with you. For anyone unvaccinated, it's important that they get tested right away. 

Madrigal says that going back and tracing everyone he came into contact with, and handling those logistics, were some of the most challenging aspects of getting COVID: "When we say we're 'all in it together' in a positive way ... you're also all in it together in the sense that everyone you've exposed is in it with you."

"That was tough," he admits.

A person wearing scrubs and a face mask and a plastic protector sticks a nose swab into another person's nose.
Merline Jimene administers a COVID-19 test swab to a person at a testing site located in the international terminal at Los Angeles International Airport amid a surge in omicron variant cases on Dec. 21, 2021. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Isolate from others

The CDC recommends isolating yourself from other members of your household — if possible, within a separate, contained area in your home and away from others — for at least five full days, with Day Zero as the day you first experienced symptoms. This CDC guidance changed from a previous isolation period of 10 days, and local public health experts encourage you to weigh the risks of breaking isolation earlier than 10 days.

It's essential to only venture out if you need to seek immediate medical care. If you're experiencing any of the CDC's emergency warning signs like trouble breathing, pressure in the chest, or pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, seek medical care.

Madrigal says that as soon as his at-home test came back positive, he was on the phone to schedule his PCR test while packing a bag to isolate from his family in a separate apartment. "We were lucky enough to find a neighbor who had a rental [nearby]" where he was able to isolate, he says.

While Lagos acknowledges she feels "lucky" to have had access to paid time off, during which she and her partner could stay home, "in terms of preventing it from spreading throughout a household, I mean — we have tiny homes in San Francisco," she notes. "Most of us don't have extra bedrooms or bathrooms."

For that reason, Lagos says that in her personal experience, much of the official advice about isolating with COVID "is not that practical when you're actually in this situation — particularly with kids involved."

If finding a separate space to wait out isolation or quarantine outside your home isn't possible for you, either, try to designate spaces within your home that reduce the possibility of transmission. That might look like sleeping in another room, using a separate bathroom, wearing masks inside at all times or improving ventilation within your home — for example, by opening your windows. The CDC also recommends avoiding sharing all personal household items — towels, dishes, glassware — with the folks you live with.

Think about it this way, recommends Madrigal: Even if you can't isolate in a completely separate space, "what is the way that I can reduce my exposing the people around me as much as possible?"

Monitor your symptoms

Remember to keep track of your symptoms — even if it means writing them down. If you ever have any of the following symptoms, or any of the other emergency warning signs per the CDC, call 911 immediately:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone

Madrigal says it's essential to keep an eye on your body after your COVID diagnosis: "If I didn't have these kinds of metrics [like resting heart rate], I might just think it was all in my head."

Several small boxes are stacked next to each other on a counter, each one has the same design and label, which read, "COVID-19 Antigen Home Test."
Rapid COVID-19 test kits await distribution at Union Station in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2022. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Find a support network

Harshaw's own COVID diagnosis came at a time when he and a community of fans were grieving after the death of Steve 'Zumbi' Gaines, the prolific MC of Zion I. Recognizing that his positive result was coming at a particularly tough time, rather than running from that fact, was key for him.

"Any time you go through something traumatic, you go through something significant — you want a support group ... to survive life, have a support group," Harshaw says.

Several of Harshaw's friends also caught COVID in different circumstances around the same time Harshaw himself was isolating. In this way, having loved ones to turn to and talk about their shared experiences in a group chat transformed Harshaw's isolation time into a source of comfort.

"When it comes to facing something of this magnitude, make sure you have a friend or two that you can talk to," he advises.

Don't overlook self-care

Get plenty of rest, stay hydrated and take over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen as needed to address any physical discomfort.

For Harshaw, balancing his own COVID diagnosis and mental health required a careful dance between nourishing his physical and spiritual self-care. “It was the balance of trying to nurture myself," he says. "Like physical nourishment, and make sure I eat soup and drink juice while also don't lose my head.”

Once Harshaw had addressed and handled the logistics of child care, he resolved to unplug. For him, this looked like grabbing a book, a puzzle, and an intricate coloring sheet from the library and turning up the jazz.

He also admits that was the time he finally bonded with his cat.

A bag of oranges in a white knit bag.
When it comes to logistics like grocery shopping, reach out to a network of support and find someone who can help. (Cottonbro/Pexels)

How do I handle the logistics of a positive test?

Let's face it: A positive COVID result requires a near-immediate halt to your typical day-to-day life as you know it.

When you first get that positive result, you'll start thinking about all the ways you might be interacting with others, from the care you provide for your family to how you interact with roommates — and, of course, your work and ability to earn money.

Handling child care when you have COVID

Because Madrigal and his whole family had to isolate, his kids were out of school for a week — and his partner also had to quarantine with them. "My wife had to have a whole bunch of conversations with her work," he admits.

But he adds that child care extended beyond their family unit and included others from a wider circle of support — family, neighbors, friends — who helped them out by bringing over toys for their kids to play with. "It was pretty sweet how people kind of came together in our community around," says Madrigal.

Think about neighbors, friends and extended family members who would be able to step in and support with child care while you're isolating, or even who might be able to pick essential care items like groceries or medicines, if home delivery isn't an option.

For Harshaw, who co-parents his young daughter, coordinating child care with her mother after his positive test was crucial. "I asked if she could take my daughter for a couple more days while I got better," he says. "Hats off to her. She held it down, and I really appreciate that."

Groceries and accessing food while self-isolating

When you're isolating, it's essential that you stay home until it's safe for you to be around others — and the CDC recently changed its isolation guidance to span at least a full five days. That makes grabbing the essential supplies you need to isolate difficult.

When it came to figuring out what to eat and how to get groceries, Harshaw turned to his networks of support. "I worked with the neighbor to get a couple of things," he says. "But other than that, I just dug deep into my cabinets."

He says having his old emergency earthquake go-bag ready from the start of the pandemic was his go-to for feeding himself while he self-isolated — that, and a bag of frozen only-open-in-case-of-emergency lemons.

Find out if your employer can cover your pay while you self-isolate

Talk to your employer to identify what protections you have in case of a COVID-19-positive diagnosis.

The repercussions of not going to work are not equal for all workers. Many hourly workers are not granted the same protections or benefits that salaried workers are. At the end of 2021, California ended its COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave (SPSL), which granted workers 80 extra hours of leave if they tested positive for the coronavirus or had to care for a family member.

However, exclusion pay is still required for California workers who have to quarantine due to a COVID-19 exposure at your workplace.  Through the Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS),  Cal/OSHA requires employers to maintain an employee's pay and benefits for any worker who is "excluded" from a workplace while they isolate or quarantine.

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There are limitations to this temporary exclusion pay, however. The ETS does not extend to any COVID exposure that wasn't work-related. So if you were exposed outside of work, your employer isn't obligated by the state to pay for lost wages.

It's also limited to workers, which means the state is not requiring your employer to maintain your pay or benefits if you're caring for a family member — including children.

However, you may be eligible for sick leave or other benefits such as disability insurance, paid family leave, or unemployment insurance benefits. Your own city or county also may offer programs to support people who are losing work because of a COVID diagnosis, such as San Francisco's Right to Recover Program that provides $1,285 to reimburse "or pay reasonable and necessary personal, family, or living expenses" to any worker who lives in SF and tests positive for COVID, and "anticipates experiencing financial hardship during their two-week quarantine or isolation." This particular program is offered regardless of a person's immigration or citizenship status. 

A gloved blue hands held by a nurse in a blue robe hold a small white COVID-19 testing vial and swab.
A registered nurse stirs a nasal swab in testing solution after administering a COVID-19 test at Sameday Testing on July 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

What should people who've just tested positive know?

As natural as it is, don't panic thinking you've automatically exposed or infected your loved ones in your home, says Madrigal. That's not "actually how the virus works."

"You actually have some leverage to protect the people around you even after you've tested positive and been in the house with them," he says. Madrigal also says to remember that, with the proper isolation and protection, keeping your loved ones safe from COVID isn't off the table.

For him, another big takeaway he wishes he'd known before getting COVID is the importance of preparing a COVID emergency plan before you test positive — much like you would have for an earthquake or wildfire — to make your life easier while you prepare to isolate or quarantine.

Some things to include in your COVID emergency kit:

  • Food and liquids to last up to 10 days
  • Extra N95s, KN95s or well-fitting masks
  • Fans or other ventilation
  • Extra testing supplies
  • A designated place to isolate — that could be in a space closed off from roommates, family members or children
  • A phone tree, texting group or go-to list of people who could help you with child care or groceries — it could be a neighbor, friend or family member

Harshaw says that for him, getting COVID offered a lesson in suppressing the ego: "It's not about self. It's not about how you're perceived by the larger community. It is really about the health: the benefit of us as a people being on one accord." 

Harshaw also says that isolating and spending a lot of alone time with yourself brings its own challenges — especially if you want to stay glued to the news.

"It's hard to be with yourself. There are some pretty ugly thoughts in there," he says. "So, having a support group, having hobbies and healthy outlets — and a couple of snacks."

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