Column: How I’ve stayed COVID-free — caution, good luck and a smart wife

Infected coughed on me, without a mask.

I didn’t get COVID.

I’ve attended parties that became super spreader events – I didn’t get COVID.

I’ve never protected myself in place and have frequently punctured my pandemic bubble during the worst waves – didn’t catch the virus.

Once, a sneezing, sniffling guy’s saliva somehow got through his mask and landed on my forehead. The next day he called me to tell me what I had already suspected: he had the corona.

Not me.

As far as I know, I have yet to be among the tens of millions of Americans who have been infected with COVID-19 over the past 2½ years. I’ve been through the onset of the pandemic, its deadly spike in winter 2020, this summer’s Delta variant and Omicron for everyone without ever losing my sense of taste or smell, feeling tired, suffering from gastrointestinal issues or any other symptoms that have hit my friends, family and co-workers.

I’m the last in my closest social circles to be able to say that, even though we’re all vaccinated and doubly charged. And if I’ve ever gotten the disease but been asymptomatic, no one has ever accused me of passing the disease on to them.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m COVID-free. um, yeah? Ah, how?

There are no exact figures on how many people have contracted the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently lists the total number of reported cases in the United States at over 92 million, but most experts agree that’s a minority. A May CDC report estimated that nearly 60% of Americans have the disease. A June poll conducted jointly by the US Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 40% of American adults said they had previously had COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, based at the University of Washington, estimates that more than 80% of Americans have contracted COVID-19 at least once.

Regardless of the numbers, scientists are increasingly curious about how and why COVID is hitting some people hard but seems to be skipping others. So I called Los Angeles Department of Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who has been spearheading the county’s pandemic response and has been vilified for her caution-first approach. I thought I was something special, someone worthy of a case study.

“I’m not really surprised,” Ferrer told me over the phone. “There are still a few million people in LA County who haven’t contracted it yet. There are people who were even asymptomatic and that could have been you.”

Well, so much for my theory that I was always in good health because the American government secretly injected me with a serum to make me an Avenger.

But when I told Ferrer about my pandemic past, she congratulated me on a game plan that has so far eluded the disease: a combination of caution, good genes, luck — and especially my wife Delilah.

Ferrer began by saying she enjoyed my previous columns about convincing my dad not to be a Pandejo and how Delilah and her staff continue to mask at their Santa Ana market, offering masks to customers for free.

“I can tell you what you did — you wore a mask, and a good one at that,” she said. “We had such a fight over the mask, but most people who have told me they didn’t get COVID tell me they wore a mask.

“You were lucky that you weren’t in a place or going to a gathering where someone was very contagious,” Ferrer continued. “And you were careful from the start.”

Ah …

For the first few months I wore masks on assignments, but in my personal life I dropped them. I found them silly and felt self-conscious wearing one – emphasized my big forehead, you know? What converted me was my wife telling me I would be banned from her shop if I didn’t do it smartly. It’s also pushed me to evolve my look—from a headscarf to a cloth mask to a surgical one to the N95 variant that I now wear as comfortably as a windbreaker—as new studies on the effectiveness of each emerged.

Happy wife, happy life, no sick fights…or anything.

A woman with a mask stands at the door of a market.

Delilah Snell, the author’s wife, stands on the doorstep of her store, the Alta Baja Market in Santa Ana

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

When I told Ferrer that my wife had never had COVID either, she sounded even more impressed.

“Both of you were careful in the right places at the right time and that really reduces your exposure,” she said.

“But,” Ferrer added, “you probably got lucky.”

Rather a lot.

I never stopped visiting my father and siblings, although I always provided some kind of ventilation. This summer I went to a banquet in a muggy room where I was one of a handful of people wearing a mask — and even I ended up taking mine off. Just last week I went to lunch with a friend who was even more cautious than I was – and he texted me two days later to let me know I should test myself (I came out negative; he didn’t ).

My wife and I are basically living our pre-pandemic lives now, but we are still exercising caution. We eat at our favorite places, but mostly on the terrace. We have friends over, but only with the front door or window open. We weren’t perfect – and yet we remain COVID-free.

“I’m doing almost anything I want to do at this point,” Ferrer said, “but I have my mask on all the time. I go to concerts indoors and I’m maybe one in five people wearing a mask, but I feel like it makes a difference.”

Could the fact that people like me don’t have COVID make others think they don’t need to take any precautions at all?

“I don’t know many people who didn’t take precautions and didn’t get COVID,” Ferrer replied. “It has something to do with luck that you don’t get exposed and you might have some good genes. Maybe something about your immune system is making it difficult for the virus to gain a foothold.”

I’m sure my luck will run out soon – I’m about to get on a plane for a start – but talking to Ferrer reinforced my belief that caution is the best way to deter the corona. Definitely no hubris: when I bragged about the fact that I’ve been drinking orange juice my entire life and that it must surely strengthen my body to ward off illness, I could practically hear my wife roll her eyes nearby.

“No, I always said that!” she yelled over the TV. “Wear a mask! This pandemic would be over long ago if people just wore their masks!”

Ferrer laughed.

“Your wife was right from the start,” she said. “Listen to her more. She has the wisdom of women who care about each other.”

Happy woman, better life. Column: How I’ve stayed COVID-free — caution, good luck and a smart wife

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