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My family's Covid diagnosis shows how our broken, confusing system exploits privilege

The only way we can get through this is if we have a system that works for everyone. And after having Covid-19, I'm convinced that we do not.

By the time you finish reading this, at the rate we're at right now, about 10 people in the United States will have died of Covid-19. To date, over 14.7 million have tested positive for the coronavirus. You can now add me, my husband and our three children to that massive number. Despite our country's best efforts to "do the right thing," the number continues to rise. But what is doing the right thing, really?

Despite our country’s best efforts to “do the right thing,” that number continues to rise. But what is doing the right thing, really?

That's something I've been grappling with since my husband tested positive the day before Thanksgiving. He woke up with a headache and a minor sore throat. Normally, we'd have chalked those symptoms up to a hangover or just general malaise. But given the situation, we decided to get him tested.

Masked up, I joined him for a complicated and confusing tele-doc appointment. After a long wait, we were tested at an urgent care clinic. His rapid test came back positive. We weren't naive enough to think driving home with my head out the window with two masks on would stop me from getting it, too. If he had it, I knew that meant I did or soon would. So we needed to figure out the next two weeks quickly.

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My husband immediately went back to our New York City apartment to isolate. I stayed in our New Jersey home with our three kids, who are 14, 11 and 7, and I self-quarantined in a guest room above our garage, separate from my kids. Just having this type of housing arrangement is a privilege. I didn't see them for an entire week. They were forced to take care of themselves while I was isolated. Our generous neighbors and family dropped off meals at our doors; I am incredibly thankful — and lucky — that we have that kind of support system.

Had we not gotten my husband tested, we would have kept our kids in school, exposing our family, our kids' classmates and our colleagues. We were a day away from unknowingly becoming superspreaders. That absolutely terrifies me.

By the end of the week, I had tested positive, as well. My symptoms changed by the day, but they mostly felt just like a terrible flu. The worst symptoms were the fear and anxiety about what was to come and about whom I might have infected. Here again, I was privileged enough to be able to manage those fears, with doctors answering my frantic phone calls and messages. And I work for a company that let me put my life on hold and focus on my health.

But even with this support, parts of the process failed. The urgent care clinic never gave me my test results. My husband figured out which lab it used and created a patient profile online. My husband's first PCR test was never processed, or it got lost. We're still not sure. When he went home to New York, he paid $250 for another test from a private lab — again, a luxury available only to those who can afford it.

This stress isn't unusual — it's the norm. Across the country, Americans have raised the alarm for months about our haphazard testing and muddled guidelines. And the guidelines have shifted since the pandemic started. Is it any wonder that this spread continues? We're all confused. I still don't know where we got Covid-19.

And forget about contact tracing calls; making them was insanely difficult. So many of the people I might have exposed didn't want to hear it. The people I came in contact with and the big-box stores I spent time in seemed to have no interest in when I might have exposed them. None of the stores took my temperature, but even if they had done so, it wouldn't have made a difference — I had no fever.

One of the people who did take my call seriously, the woman who cuts my hair, canceled her Thanksgiving, took her kids out of school, stopped going to work and made no money for nearly two weeks. Her test, which she spent three hours waiting to get, came back eight days later. It was negative. But how many people can put their lives, livelihoods and jobs on hold just to do the right thing?

Hourly wage workers are going to work sick because they can't afford not to work. Many of their employers are ignoring the symptoms, because they are trying to keep business alive.

Testing remains a challenge — and there are no consequences for people who don't self-isolate while they wait several days just to get results, especially if they have no or minimal symptoms.

And then there are people who may know they are spreading the coronavirus and simply don't care. Any of these scenarios is possible, because there is no comprehensive national containment plan.

Quarantining symptom-free, rambunctious kids for 14 days can feel excessive when you are trying to manage your life, and the rules and consequences vary state to state and even sometimes city by city, as do the mechanisms for checking up on residents. But the consequences are real, and they are everywhere. We see them in our exploding rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

My family is extremely lucky. We didn't get super sick. We had access to testing, eventually got some results and had the space and the financial stability to isolate safely. We have supportive paying jobs and schools that can offer virtual learning. If I didn't have all of that, maybe it would have been a lot harder to follow the guidelines.

What's most concerning is that our government is doing little to nothing to make these guidelines easier to follow. In South Korea and Hong Kong, a positive test means two weeks in a government-sponsored quarantine hotel, with meals provided. Here, almost the entire system is reliant on personal responsibility.

Covid-19, of course, doesn't care whether you are rich, poor, Black, white, young or old. It doesn't care whether you're about to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas or your birthday. We're told to do the right thing but not fully how or why. And what I have learned is that the "right thing" gets easier the more privileged you are.

The only way we can get through this is if we have a system that works for everyone, and after having Covid-19, I'm convinced that we do not.