After 26 months of playing what I came to regard as viral dodgeball, this Sunday I tested positive for. That is noteworthy only to my family and employer. But it’s part of a larger pattern of the pandemic in America now.
People like me are getting infected even though they are at some level vaccinated and boosted. In my case, I have received two vaccines and two boosters — all of them. My most recent booster was administered May 9.
I tested positive 13 days later.
My positive test, of course, plunged me into isolation. An entire week of work assignments — and there were more than a few — disappeared. My podcast, “The Takeout,” has not failed to produce an original show each week in its history (dating back to January 2017). We scrubbed the in-person show we had planned and booked Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser.
“You’re the personification of this,” Dr. Fauci told me Thursday, referring to rising infection rates — more than 100,000 cases per week nationally for the first time since February. “This is a highly transmissible virus. And it is very likely that if you were not vaccinated and double-boosted, then you would have had a much more severe outcome than you have right now. And you and I, I think — very unlikely, Major, we’d be speaking to each other right now.”
Fauci could see me via Zoom. I looked and sounded well enough for an interview. My symptoms were fatigue, headache, low-level fever and night sweats. Fatigue was my first, most noticeable symptom. I felt it Saturday afternoon as I tried to play golf. I was winded in an utterly unfamiliar way. It’s a common symptom, Fauci told me.
My symptoms have been manageable. I’ve had worse. I’ve had pneumonia and double pneumonia, and both were much worse.
And yet, even with four doses of vaccine in my system, Covid still felt like real sickness. To Fauci’s point, I thought about how much worse things might have been had I not been vaxxed and boosted.
Fauci asked me if I had sought any antiviral therapy. My primary-care physician prescribed. I began a five-day regimen Tuesday evening and felt noticeably better Wednesday morning.
That was the right course of action, Fauci told me, and he said that taking Paxlovid as soon as possible after testing positive is also something the government is trying to get the general public to do and physicians treating SARS-Co-V-2 patients to do.
Fauci praised Paxlovid as “an anti-viral drug that has a very good capability to the tune of almost 90% of preventing people from requiring hospitalizations and going on to severe disease.”
As it happened, that very day the federal government was ramping up availability of Paxlovid.
“We are doubling the number of sites that have packs of it available from 20,000 to 40,000. Just today we’ve announced the first of the federally supported test and treat sites are opening up in Rhode Island, soon to be followed by Minnesota, New York and other locations.”
Three Paxlovid tablets, twice a day, gave me no side effects, outside of a faint metallic taste.
“It blocks the replication of the virus,” Fauci said. “When you block the replication of the virus, you essentially interfere with the kind of effects that you experience — the chills, the fatigue, the headache, the feeling that you were very much under the weather.”
Most U.S. COVID cases now (at least 58%) are linked to the BA 126.96.36.199 variant of SARS-Co-V-2. This mutation, Fauci said, echoing my own doctor, is more of an upper respiratory virus. The majority of protection afforded by vaccines and boosters is related to lower-respiratory illness.
“The one thing that has held strong is protection against systemic disease, particularly lung disease,” Fauci said. “However, the upper airway has become a vulnerable target.”
As such, Fauci repeated the current CDC advice on wearing masks in places where “you are having an upsurge of cases,” which is to don them indoors while in large groups.
I asked Fauci if the country was experiencing its fifth COVID wave.
“We are certainly having a number of cases that have increased,” Fauci said, noting the U.S. is still way down from its harrowing peak of 900,000 cases a day, along with tens of thousands of hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. “The daily average is now over 100,000 a day. Should we be calling that a wave? I’m not so sure. I think it’s a bit of semantics. I think we should say we are seeing an increase of infection. That’s the sobering news.”
But Fauci also pointed to promising signs.
“The somewhat encouraging news is that the parts of the country that had increases earlier are starting to plateau and come down. That’s New York City particularly. That’s the Chicago area. That’s the Washington, D.C., area.”
According to available data, an unvaccinated person is 68 times more likely to die from COVID than a vaccinated person.
“If you look at hospitalizations among individuals who are unvaccinated, compared to the hospitalizations and deaths among those who are vaccinated and boosted, the curves are separated by a large amount,” Fauci said.
“The likelihood of getting into trouble is multi-fold more if you’re unvaccinated compared to vaccinated.”
I reminded Fauci I was boosted (my second) on May 9 and still tested positive within two weeks.
“Vaccines are not necessarily geared at…giving you sterilized immunity or preventing even the slightest bit of infection,” Fauci said. “That’s the point. The main purpose is to prevent you from getting ill. Prevent you from being in the hospital. Preventing you from dying. So I don’t want to be making any predictions of what might have happened, but it is entirely conceivable that, given the fact that you had some significant symptoms, even though you were vaccinated, you could have gotten into some serious trouble had you not been vaccinated.”
Fauci brought up the rough political climate when I asked him it if was wise, as some have suggested, for insurers to increase premiums for those who chose not to receive Covid vaccinations, much as is already done with premiums for those who smoke.
“I prefer not to,” Fauci said, “because through no fault of your own, the people who inappropriately and incorrectly say I’m encroaching upon one’s freedom will jump all over that and that will just give them some legs on something that is distracting from what we are really want, which is to get people vaccinated.”
In that light, I asked Fauci if he would stay in his White House post if Republicans take control of Congress in the mid-term elections. Several Republicans have suggested they would investigate Fauci’s actions during the pandemic.
“I don’t know,” Fauci said. “I haven’t given that a thought. Right now, I’m focusing on getting us through this increase that we’re in now. That’s what I worry about when I go to be at night. I don’t worry about what I’m going to be doing six months from now.”
I asked if he feared Republicans’ investigations or requests for documents.
“Absolutely not at all,” Fauci said. I have nothing to hide. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m an open book.”
Executive producer: Arden Farhi
Producers: Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson