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Making the calls was hard.
And, it had to be done, no matter how unpleasant it was.
Once I’d tested positive for Covid-19, I had to call everyone I’d seen for the past few days and let them know I’d exposed them to the virus that’s disrupting our lives one more time. These are conversations I hope I never have to have again.
It was embarrassing, telling people I had Covid and might have given it to them. It made me feel guilty.
Wait, why would someone feel guilty about being sick?
It’s partly my WASP-y background. I grew up thinking of any illness as weakness. Also, I have a pathological fear of imposing on anyone, and God knows coming down with Covid would be a huge imposition.
Apparently, I’m not alone in wishing I could keep my diagnosis to myself.
The Chicago Tribune ran a story about guilt and shame associated with having Covid and making those contact-tracing calls. And it’s not just WASPs feeling guilty.
The Trib quotes a psychologist pointing to the rampant judgement about the unvaccinated who got sick after the vaccine became an option. (See Twitter for myriad examples, many of them darkly humorous.)
Now, he says, as fully vaccinated people are getting Covid too, they naturally worry that people will think they haven’t followed the protocols, and will heap scorn upon them.
Plus, we might anticipate people being mad at us, or lashing out at us because of their own frustration. I hate it when anyone’s mad at me, don’t you?
And then there’s that sense that maybe we did something stupid somewhere along the way. Went to the wrong restaurant, spent time with people we should have avoided, breathed in the wrong place. “If only I’d …”
The experts suggest letting go of all that head-trash.
So, let’s stipulate that being swept up in a global pandemic may not be a sign of moral failing.
We still need to let people know about our situation, if there’s any chance we were contagious when we were with them. So, what’s the best way to go about that?
My own rules for delivering bad news don’t apply here. Because the first one is: Talk to them face-to-face.
Not in this case, right?
You wouldn’t think they’d have to spell this out, but there it is on a Georgia health system’s website: “When communicating that you’ve been infected with the virus, avoid In-person communication as this runs the risk of spreading the disease further.”
I admit it. I laughed out loud.
Beyond stating the obvious, health departments, hospitals, and universities offer suggestions about breaking the bad news.
Some of them are terrible.
Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services tells us about a site where you can send anonymous texts or emails telling people they’ve been exposed to the virus.
Okay, look, I understand reluctance to face someone who might be mad at you. But anonymous messages about Covid exposure? Really?
Time to face the music.
And to face anyone who’s been within a few feet of you in the past two days. Or maybe it’s five days – the guidance is all over the map at this point. To be on the safe side, I went back by a week and reached out to people I’d seen.
And I opted for phone calls.
Yes, an email or text would be easier, less embarrassing. It’s not about me though, don’t you think? It just seemed better to deliver bad news in a direct conversation than in a note someone would read whenever they next checked their email.
So, I braced myself for those conversations and picked up the phone.
Fortunately, I only had to have a handful—I’d mostly been staying at home anyway. But there was that one meeting I’d gone to. I had to call everyone who’d been there and give them the news. And our house cleaner. And my manicurist. The friends we were with on New Year’s Eve, far enough back that they were probably fine, but just in case …
How’d it go? As well as you could expect. I’d been worried about one especially health-conscious meeting-mate; they turned out to be surprisingly understanding and sympathetic.
And that was the kind of reaction I got from everyone.
Truth is, the virus is so ubiquitous at this point that careful, considerate, conscientious people are picking it up and passing it around. I didn’t run into any judgement or scolding or negativity.
It was a relief to have the calls behind me. And I was glad I’d made them when I did. By the next morning, I could hardly talk anyway.
I’m on the rebound by now of course. And looking forward to never making calls like that again.
But just in case … what suggestions do you have for being the bearer of bad news? Looking forward to your comment here.
I would start out with “This is a really difficult call for me to make, but it’s really important for me to let you know that…” How did you deliver the news? Glad you are better, Catherine!
I don’t think every call was the same, Paula. I tried to begin with the focus on them rather than me. I felt terrible about potentially exposing them to Covid, but really, why should they care about how terrible I felt? The important thing was how they felt.
I did learn that context counts. The first friend I called was at the grocery store when I caught her off-guard with a contact-tracing call!
Thank you so much Catherine for sharing your experience! In this time of so much confusion, it was like being able to take a deep breath, a sigh, that someone was offering clear, concise and personal guidance on an aspect of dealing with Covid. I pray that you are feeling better and on your way to full recovery. We need you and love you. Be well.
Thanks, Marietta. I am feeling much better. Still at home though, because I’m still testing positive. CDC guidance is a little murky there (what else is new?) but it just seems smarter to stay away from people until the virus has cleared out of my system. That murkiness is really an issue. Seems to me the whole US government and the health care establishment need a communication consultant!
Catherine, so sorry you’ve had Covid, so glad you’re on the mend and appreciate the excellent advice regarding a situation I still hope not to find myself in. Good to know that people are generally understanding. I know of so many who have had it or been exposed during this surge, I continue to be careful (vaxxed, boostered, masked) but have stopped really worrying about it.
This latest variant seems to give us less to worry about, Linda. It’s not fun, but it’s not nearly as bad as what people were going through with the original version of Covid. Or at least that seems to be true for those of us who are vaccinated, and maybe for others as well. There’s a lot for all of us to learn from the experience.
Loved your piece and would like you talk to you. Text to let me know when you have time to talk.
Thanks, Carol — glad you dug it. I’ll be in touch.
First, thank God you’re on the mend. You need to take this subject and run with it…timely and trenchant. Not so long ago people regarded a cancer diagnosis as shameful, a stigma.
Sing it honey!
That’s a good point, Katie. I can remember when obituaries used code words like “a long illness” because “cancer” was considered unmentionable. The feeling of shame is especially a problem with something as infectious as Covid. If we don’t talk about it, we’ll never stop it from spreading.
The virus is unavoidable. My doctor believes everyone will eventually get it. The only precaution is being vaccinated and hopefully you don’t get serious health complications.
My only advice is informing people FAST.
Hours & days reduce the spread. And I too would call and speak in person if possible. If they are not available e-mail or text them too.
There is no shame in getting Covid.
Your doctor may well be right, Jack. It sure is pervasive already. And yes, it is important to let people know as soon as possible so they can start taking care of themselves. The vaccine does seem to be setting people up for milder symptoms and quicker recovery, and that’s a great thing.