If you’d asked me a few weeks ago what my Christmas looked like, I wouldn’t have said eating an entire panettone in bed on my own.
Welcome to Isomas, the most 2020 Christmas imaginable — one that many are living right now.
Thousands of people in Sydney alone are in self-isolation after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, while others are in hotel quarantine, in lockdown or have made the call it’s not safe to have guests.
We’re having to find a new way to spend a day that is usually marked by hugs and kisses from family, passing plates around the table and singing carols.
All of that is forbidden to us now, with Christmas suddenly spent in solitary confinement with a sentence of 14 days.
So how did I get here, to what I’ve come to call my “Quazza Christmas”?
A fateful decision
Early last week, with zero cases of coronavirus in the community for over a month in NSW, I decided it was safe to get a bus into the city.
As the bus pulled up, I realised I’d left my mask in the car. But, panicking about being late, I jumped onboard anyway.
I hadn’t gotten public transport in so long that the debit card linked to my Opal Card had expired six months before. The tap-on failed, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.
The next day, I was already in the ABC building when we found out an Avalon couple had been diagnosed with COVID-19. I was already at a play that evening — the first I’d seen all year — when we heard that two cases had turned into 17.
I would usually be out dancing at midnight on a Saturday, but last weekend I was on my couch doom-scrolling the NSW Health alerts page.
And there it was — my first bus ride in over six months. “Anyone who travelled this route is considered a close contact and must isolate for 14 days regardless of test results”.
Dozens of people were on the same double-decker bus with a passenger who was unknowingly infected with coronavirus. The same bus route was listed by NSW Health on six occasions over several days. That could have put hundreds of people in self-isolation — potentially from the activity of only one confirmed case.
For Sydneysiders, it’s worth considering when you weigh up how much to leave your home over the coming weeks.
Because my Opal card had failed, I was an “undocumented” close contact, one of the people who slip through the system. It shows the importance of bookmarking the health alerts site, checking it daily, and not relying on contact tracers to find you.
After turning myself in to NSW Health, I made a list of the people we’d need to call if I tested positive. Because I’d chosen to stay home over the weekend, it was short, but it would ordinarily contain dozens of people.
I waited two and a half hours in the drive-through queue at Bondi as people turned out in record numbers, listening to a program on the radio investigating why Beethoven had diarrhea — a medical mystery to distract me from my own.
Two days later, the test came back negative. But I wasn’t out of the woods.
The virus has an average incubation period of 14 days, meaning it can show up at any point in that window. Testing negative in the early days doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t caught the virus — it can mean the virus hasn’t yet replicated to a point where it can be detected on a swab.
You can test negative on day four, as I did, then test positive on day seven, or day ten, or eleven. Ninety per cent of people with Covid-19 will test positive by day 10 but it’s a smaller proportion up to that point.
It did, however, mean it was highly likely I wasn’t infectious when I had been at work or the theatre, which was a relief.
Close contacts are defined as having a “reasonable chance” of having caught this coronavirus. NSW Health doesn’t want to take any gambles with a deadly virus, so close contacts must isolate for the full 14 days, whereas “casual” contacts simply need to monitor for symptoms after an initial negative result, and get re-tested if they appear.
I was deemed a close contact on the bus — and so I stayed locked down in my bedroom.
During the first wave in Sydney, I spent 10 weeks in my house, so 14 days seemed like no big deal.
“It’ll be like one of those silent meditation retreats! Maybe I’ll write a novel!”
I did none of those things. Instead of finding enlightenment, I burnt out.
Bedroom quarantine is entirely different to lockdown.
If you live with other people, self-isolation means being confined to one room and one bathroom.
Any surface I touched — be it a light switch or a door handle — had to be sprayed with Glen 20, so I became a “quarantine contortionist”, opening doors with my feet and elbows.
If I had to cross through the living room we all masked up in respirators, as they’re the most effective at blocking COVID aerosols. It rained all week but we opened all the doors and windows. We weren’t taking any chances.
Vigilance is draining
I would have had more peace of mind if I’d worn a mask on that bus. The problem with leaving these decisions up to individuals is that people don’t always make rational decisions — like thinking being on time was more important than protecting myself from a virus whose long-term effects are still emerging.
But the draining part wasn’t worrying I’d caught the virus, but the hypervigilance and the uncertainty around the risk I posed to others.
Should the people in my household still go to Christmas with elderly relatives, or to regional towns? Could they see vulnerable clients face-to-face? Did they need to be tested and when should they go for accurate results?
I feel for everyone grappling with these questions this week and healthcare workers who’ve endured this mental load all year.
After a few days of this mental gymnastics on top of working, I felt emotionally exhausted and struggled to string a sentence together.
It’s hard to fall asleep in a bed you’ve spent all day working in, with your room still smelling like your dinner. My iPhone sent me a bleak notification that my screen-time had jumped from 3 hours to 6 hours a day in the past week.
And yet, I was so privileged. I had a room of my own. People to prepare meals for me. A house with windows that open, and a view over trees. The ability to work from home, and annual leave on the horizon. This isn’t the case for many Australians.
A few days in, I read about the experience of an asylum seeker who’s been in hotel quarantine since the beginning of the year, never knowing when it would end. Fourteen days seemed like a blessing.
Covid or ‘fauxvid’?
Because early tests can come back negative, the health advice is to get retested when symptoms appear. But like many people, I often have mild symptoms — a slightly sore throat, a blocked nose. It was impossible to tell if it were COVID or “fauxvid” — another unknowable in the uncertainty soup.
So I got re-tested on day seven in the carpark of my local “leisure centre”.
While it was hardly “leisure”, this brief excursion to have a stick poked up my nose felt like a holiday.
Eight days after my possible exposure, the bus time on the health alerts site was revised by 15 minutes. There was no way I could have been on the COVID bus.
While inconvenient, these revisions are inevitable as contact tracing evolves, which shows the importance of checking and rechecking the alerts page daily — especially for contacts like mine where your details may not have been recorded.
It was Christmas Eve, and with a second negative test under my belt, I was suddenly free(ish).
Even when your plans are doing literally nothing, they can still change in an instant — how 2020.
But I still didn’t feel comfortable going to Christmas with elderly and immunocompromised relatives. The afternoon I got the bus, at least three people contracted coronavirus just blocks from me and if I’d gotten the bus before, I too would’ve been exposed.
It’s a slim chance, but it would be the worst Christmas present of all time. I can easily visit my family later.
My story is a lesson in the risks of dropping your guard.
The main thing I learnt was that even when you feel safe, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are. We will always have people returning to Australia, so until a vaccine arrives, this virus can pop back up at any time.
To everyone celebrating Isomas in bed, I’m thinking of you.
Merry Quazza Christmas.