Oh, Great. Now I’ve Got Covid.

I’m boosted, I feel fine. But what timing, huh? I got it the very day the C.D.C. cut isolation time in half. And I guiltily remembered how I cheated on my SARS quarantine 18 years ago.

Donald G. McNeil Jr.
7 min readDec 28, 2021

Well, that didn’t take long. I thought this wave of the virus might get most of us. And now it’s my turn.

Nonetheless, my timing was perfect: the same day I turned positive, the C.D.C. cut isolation times in half. I can go into hiding for only five days, not 10 or 14.

(However, I think I’ll ignore the C.D.C. and use the British standard: 7 days with negative rapid tests on days 6 and 7. It seems safer for those I care about and less focused on saving the airline industry.)

I woke up Monday (the 27th) with a slightly scratchy throat. Temperature 98.9 (high for me, I’m normally about 97.6, but 98.9 is not fever). Other than that, nothing. In the days before Covid, I would have ignored it and gone to the office. But I had just written that, in the boosted, Covid often presents as cold symptoms. I also had some rapid tests left over from Dec. 21, when we used them to make sure my family’s pre-Christmas dinner was safe.

Monday rapid test (middle)

I took one. The pinkish line was so faint I could barely see it except under a bright light. But any pink is a presumed positive, and rapid tests are allegedly 99 percent accurate when positive, so…

I called or texted everyone I’d seen face-to-face since the 21st: the four family members who’d come to dinner, one friend plus daughter I’d had lunch with in a restaurant on the 22nd, one squash partner from the 23rd, a friend I’d taken a long outdoor walk with on the 26th. I thought about where I’d been indoors. The restaurant and the gym were obvious suspects, since I’d been unmasked; neither were crowded, but still…. Also, I’d also walked masked into seven pharmacies looking for rapid tests and I could hear people around me sniffling as they did the same. And masks are imperfect.

But really, there’s no way to pin blame on any moment and certainly not on any person — including yourself. With a variant this insanely transmissible, it’s like “Murder on the Orient Express” — everyone is a suspect. And there’s no point; a phone call to confess having syphilis can be deeply awkward; a Covid call shouldn’t be. We’re all constantly susceptible.

Now I had to get out of my girlfriend’s apartment to lower the chances of infecting her (I’d been there three days, so I was probably too late, but still….) What was the safest way home? Too far to walk. I didn’t want to take away her car. I didn’t want to put a cab driver at risk. I finally decided to try for a fairly empty subway. The G train is rarely full; I waited till rush hour was over, put on two masks and rode the emptiest car I could find. If anyone came near, I moved away and stood by the vent.

I’m sure I’ll be condemned for that. But being responsible in a “free society” is actually pretty tough. You’re on the honor system — but you’re also on your own. In China, if you tested positive in the early days, you were instantly slammed into quarantine on a gymnasium cot. But you were driven there, you were fed for two weeks and there were nurses standing by. Here, tests are $30 a box when you can find them: and if you happen to fall seriously ill at home, you’d better hope 911 isn’t too busy.

I’d actually been through a moral struggle like this 18 years ago. I had gone to Taiwan to cover SARS. I was careful — wearing masks when I entered hospitals, doing interviews with doctors outdoors if I could, and so on.

When I got home, I planned to return to work. I felt fine. There were zero restrictions on Americans returning from countries with SARS; not even a query or a temperature check at the airport.

But a few hours after I arrived, I had a call from our Hong Kong bureau. An American C.D.C. doctor staying at my Taipei hotel was symptomatic. I didn’t remember ever meeting him, but I wasn’t sure — there had been lots of chatting and drinking between doctors and journos in the lobby.

Now my editors knew. I couldn’t imagine explaining to my non-Science colleagues or to parents at my daughters’ schools that everything was fine, there was nothing to worry about. Americans were irrationally fearful back then because they considered epidemics something that happened in other countries.

(Years later, when a colleague of mine came back from covering Ebola in West Africa, she was not allowed back in the office. I knew how Ebola was transmitted, so I told her she could sit next to me if she promised to take her temperature twice a day and never vomit over the cubicle wall. She laughed and thanked me but they still made her stay home for two weeks.)

But in 2003, knowing any explanations would be hopeless, I quarantined myself. Or pretended to. I found it almost impossible, and wrote a first-person piece about it.

Without harsh enforcement, social-distancing measures just flop. In 2003, Taiwan was officially a democracy but still had tough-guy habits left over from 38 years of martial law. A hospital with an outbreak was surrounded by police so no one could leave. People were quarantined with electronic bracelets when there were enough bracelets, and with threats of fines when there weren’t.

Nonetheless, people cheated. A car thief slipped out to boost cars, a businessman left to close a deal. In a famous case, a zealous student identified only as Hsaio sneaked out to his cram school; he got sick, the school shut down.

Taiwan SARS mask on my NYTimes desk. (Bear optional.)

Also, believe it or not: initially, no one wore masks. The head of Taiwan’s C.D.C. said only people who were sick should wear them. But the mayor of Taipei, realizing no one would do so if it was a badge announcing “I’m infected,” decreed that no one could ride the subway without one — and posted cops at the turnstiles. Almost overnight, masks were normalized.

Back at home, it was just me and my conscience. What did I do? Before I complied, I cheated. I had been away for weeks. I had no food and no clean underwear. Fresh Direct didn’t exist. So I went to the grocery store and my building’s laundry room.

I had masks. I’d even brought back some “Hello Kitty” ones as souvenirs. But I didn’t wear one. Because how weird would any mask have looked in a Manhattan grocery store in 2003, much less a Hello Kitty one?

Three days later, a friend called and invited me to a small party. I explained my situation. He was fine with it; so were the others. It was all foreign correspondents. Foreign correspondents are nuts. I took my temperature before I went. It was 97.2. SARS was not believed to be transmissible in the absence of a fever over 100.4.

But it turned out to be totally irresponsible of me. There were kids at the party.

Later, thank goodness, it became clear that there was never any danger. The C.D.C. doctor just had a cold. False alarm.

Tuesday rapid test

Today, Tuesday, I feel slightly achy, more flu-ish. But my temperature is down to 97.8, oxygen saturation above 95. For confirmation, I took another test, a different brand. The blue line was so faint I had to wiggle it in front of a window to see it. But it’s there, so….

I still feel so fine that, at any other time, I would have gone to work. I’m in the booster’s sweet spot — I got mine in October. I’m sure my immune system is beating this.

Still, I’m trying to be more responsible than I was in 2003. However, I’m not sure the new C.D.C. guidelines — allowing one to leave isolation so soon without even a negative test — are responsible enough. And I see that some prominent virologists and public health experts on Twitter loudly agree.

Shorter isolation for the most essential workers, sure. They’re vital. But for all of us? (And for airlines? No. If there had been fewer Christmas flights, it might have slowed down the spread of the Omicron variant from New York as the November ban on flights from South Africa probably did.)

When I called the old friend I took the long walk with on Sunday, he was very understanding. “You couldn’t know,” he said.

And then he found a silver lining I would never have thought of: “Besides…it’d be kind of cool to say: ‘I got Covid from Donald McNeil.’ ”

Not to me, though. This time, I’m going to try to make sure I’m the last link in a transmission chain.



Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead Covid reporter. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT team Pulitzer donaldgmcneiljr1954@gmail.com