I have taken no small number of at-home pregnancy tests in my life—beginning during my days as a 20-something health writer and editor in New York right up through my perimenopausal late 40s—with an often-pregnant pause of about 10 years somewhere in the middle. And, yes, most of those tests were either overly cautious or gun-jumpingly unnecessary, but the point is: I can read an at-home test. Or at least I thought I could.
TMI? Bear with me.
Like so many people, in March of 2020, I stopped eating inside restaurants, grabbing coffee at cafes, and gathering with even the closest of friends indoors. I also got myself vaccinated as soon as I could and was boosted before omicron was detected in the US—as did my husband and two college-aged children. Because my youngest child couldn’t be vaccinated until May of 2021 and is not yet eligible for a booster, I have remained annoyingly vigilant over the long haul. I can count on one hand the number of times I strayed from responsible protocol during the last 20 months. Then came omicron. And this story is about omicron.
You Call This a Winter Break?
Our family of five ultimately decided to keep our plans to travel during this winter break, despite news of the lightning-fast spread of the variant; despite knowing more people with COVID than at any other point in time; and despite the fact that four-fifths of us had been personally exposed to the virus within the last week (all testing negative). Aware on some level of the risk we were taking, we double masked—a base layer of medical grade mask, topped by a cloth mask—and hopped a flight to Palm Beach International to visit my parents and my brother’s family, all of whom were also triple vaxxed.
By the third day, I was getting eye rolls from family members for the daily testing.
I had sent 12 packs of BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Tests ahead of us and we used them liberally—or at least I did. By the third day, I was getting eye rolls from family members for the daily testing, but I kept it up: before meeting extended family with little kids outside; before taking an elevator up to a rooftop to play tennis (for the first time in years); before my husband and I met friends for drinks. Elevators notwithstanding, I’m confident I can still fit these additional strays on the one hand—but you can see why I’d keep testing, amiright?
Because my husband is a physician and because I trust him more than I trust myself, I had him prep my daily test for me whenever he was around. If he wasn’t around, I’d test solo, but leave the test hanging around for him to see.
By day five, even I was tired of testing. I was also just plain tired, and a little achy—which I attributed to playing two hours of tennis. I decided to sit out tennis that day and instead took a nap.
Seeing the Line
The following morning, I felt fine, but I had a vague recollection of coughing in my sleep, though it could have been a result of the A/C, or maybe the delayed effects of one of the whopping germs my college kids brought home with them. Either way, on the sixth morning, I took my daily test, waited 15 minutes, read it as negative, snapped a photo of the result, and left it on the counter—with full knowledge that at-home COVID rapid test results, like at-home pregnancy test results, can morph if read too late. Then I joined the family outside.
I had seen only one line 15 minutes after starting a timer for the test.
Forty-five minutes later, my husband walked inside, looked at the test perhaps a little more discerningly than I had—or perhaps just 45 minutes later—and said: “I think there’s a second line there.”
I pooh-poohed the notion—sure that a second line, if anything, was the result of overexposure. I had seen only one line 15 minutes after starting a timer for the test. And I had photographic proof.
Granted, my eyes are not what they used to be. At 53, after a lifetime of perfect vision, I am on the verge of needing cheaters to read a menu. But that bugger was faint. I didn’t believe it. Not, couldn’t: didn’t. My cough was gone. I felt almost perfect, with a bit of post-nasal drip hanging around. I took another test. This time, at 15 minutes, a second line was ever-so-slightly visible. My husband and I masked up, rolled down the car windows, and drove to a clinic to get me a PCR test.
En route, we canceled our plans for the day; alerted the two friends we had seen indoors for a drink and the relatives we had seen indoors and out; and had those living under the same roof as me repeat their tests. Once back from the clinic, I commenced isolation.
The Big Question
Aside from the actual PCR test result itself, the question looming largest in my mind at that moment was: during this period of intense focus on, concern about, and wildfire spread of the Omicron variant, why haven’t I read a single word of caution about how closely we have to evaluate our at-home Covid rapid tests? Why haven’t I stumbled upon even one sentence emphasizing just how thin, colorless, and illusive that little line can be? “You have,” my physician husband countered. “It’s right there in the instructions.”
Might this suggest that millions of rapid testers are reading their tests too casually.
Gulp. “Look very closely!” the instructions read. “The bottom line can be very faint. Any pink/purple line visible here is a Positive Result.”
Well, now it’s in this article, too. Front and center. And in legible font, for all —positive, negative; testing, not testing; vaccinated, unvaccinated—to see.
In my solitude, I wondered further about the very pale line: does it mean I had just become contagious that hour? Or that I will have a mild case? And more importantly, might it suggest that millions of rapid testers are reading their tests too casually, too quickly, or simply too early?
Sick or Not Sick?
Thanks to my sister-in-law’s journalistic tendencies, I know that 50 percent of 15-minute tests at a local rapid-test site nearby in South Florida are coming back positive. That’s crazy high. But I can’t help but wonder: would more people register a positive result if the test-readers waited a little longer? How accurate are results?
I had fallen into the type of low-level depression that you only know you’re experiencing when it lifts.
As isolation goes, I’m in heaven: delicious food, unbeatable weather, lots of time to read. On my third day of isolation, I took another rapid test. It turned hot pink within five minutes, so I was sure I would be in isolation forever. What’s more; the next morning, 86 hours after submitting my test, I got my PCR results: they were positive. At this point, the tables turned and my family—whom I had had to be firm with to keep at a distance—couldn’t get far enough away from me. On day five, three of them left for Boston.
By day seven of isolation, when I finally dared to take another test, the line had turned a corner: it was faint again. Not as faint as the original line, but about as faint as the second test I took that first day. On the eighth day, the second line was gone. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. I had fallen into the type of low-level depression that you only know you’re experiencing when it lifts.
Now, after ten days of isolating, I’m packing for my flight home. Miraculously—or perhaps thanks to early detection and isolation—none of my family members or other close contacts ever tested positive or experienced symptoms. The only bad news I have to deliver is that knowing what I know now, I will likely remain annoyingly vigilant for the rest of the pandemic. So in advance, guys: sorry, not sorry.