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Sylvester Brown Jr.

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I thought I was careful, cautious, and abided by COVID precautions. But it got me anyway.

“You have a POSITIVE COVID-19 Test Result.”

I can’t explain why those words from CVS Pharmacy were so alien to me. Somewhere inside, I knew something wasn’t right. For about four days, I felt crappy. Days earlier, my younger brother mentioned in passing that he, too, wasn’t feeling well.

“Must be a cold or the flu,” he said.

I told him about my usual emergency regimen of Emergen-C Flavored Fizzy Drink Mix, cod liver and black seed oil pills, B-12 complex and some other vitamins. In two or three days tops, I’m back to normal. Usually.

Not this time. Four days later, and I still had symptoms-body aches, chills, dry cough, night sweats but, thankfully, no fever.

Could it be? Maybe?

On Wednesday, three days before Christmas, I set about trying to schedule a COVID test. To my utter frustration, I couldn’t find an at-home testing kit at any local pharmacy. With the Omicron variant spreading and the holidays approaching, I wasn’t surprised that at-home tests were of short supply.  

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So, I went the route of finding a testing site online. It was equally frustrating not being able to find one in the city. Affinia Healthcare has a site but was only testing on Tuesday between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Other clinics had specific testing days or required an appointment. Some who asked me to leave my number never returned the call.

CVS has an online listing of its pharmacies that offer the “SARS-COV-2 Rapid Result Antigen Test.” I couldn't find one in the city or in a 32-mile radius for the life of me. And, when I clicked on those sites, all said there were no available appointments that day. 

“Try again.” 

Finally, at 4 a.m. Thursday morning, I was able to schedule a test. The pharmacy was in Ballwin, more than 30 minutes from my home in Old North.

The search for a location brought back bitter 2020 memories of how testing sites were offered in majority-white St. Louis neighborhoods first before slowly coming to the darker demographics of the region. As I searched for a nearby site, I wondered how poor people without cars or access to the Internet found crucial help at crucial times.

My appointment at the Ballwin CVS was quick. A technician informed me the cotton swab I had inserted and swiveled in both nostrils would yield results within a half hour. He said I’d receive a text and an email with the results. After battling rush hour traffic to get back to the city, my phone pinged, and I read the results:

“Positive.”

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The confirmation in black and white kicked off a strange psychological reaction in me. Realizing I did not have a cold or the flu introduced the reality that a mysterious, possibly deadly invader was in my body. As the Deaconess Fellow with The St. Louis American, I have written about the ravages of the pandemic. I know what it's done and what it can do to the body, mind, and spirit. But it was always disconnected…it wasn’t me.

Now it is.

For me, the COVID diagnosis was like a dangerous question mark in my body. I’d researched and written enough about the illness to freak myself out. For example, I know that COVID can critically damage tissues in the lungs and other vital organs like the heart, kidney, liver, brain, and gastrointestinal tract.

Armed with the confirmation of an infection, my imagination kicked into overdrive. Was my rib cage sore from just coughing, or were my lungs collapsing? Was the stuffiness in my head signs of a brain tumor? Was I having aches in my lower back, or was I on the road to kidney or liver dysfunction? Should I be preparing for something? Is it foolish to just hope for the best?

By the time you read this, I will be on day 14 of this ordeal. My plan is to have been re-tested and hopefully cleared of COVID. I’ve had both shots, which is probably why my symptoms were relatively mild, but I had been dragging my feet on the booster. Not anymore. It’s the first thing on my “surviving COVID” to-do list.

I have no idea of the long-term damage, if any, but I’m ecstatic to wake up breathing, happy to write another day. I am even more concerned about the poor in the wake of this pandemic, but I’m also very grateful for people like Kendra Holmes of Affinia HealthCare, City Health Director, Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, and other healthcare professionals committed to equitable healthcare during this time of great crisis.

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This has been a sobering, eye-opening experience. I hope it adds something to my future writings on the virus. I want to be that “if it can happen to him, it can happen to me” guy for readers. I thought I was careful, cautious, and I abided by COVID precautions.

But it got me anyway.

Thus are the wishes of a COVID writer who contracted COVID. Let us not relent. Let us keep our guards up until this pandemic is assigned to the annals of history. Let us not just think about ourselves but others. And please, please get vaccinated, which includes boosters. Let’s try like hell to get through this, wake up breathing, and enjoy another day.

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Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow. 

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