Joe and Susannah Altman are serious poker players. Sometimes, when playing in tournaments, they place what is called a “Last Longer” bet with friends who see which of them can outlast the others. The pandemic kept the Altmans, both 58, away from in-person tables for more than a year — Susannah has lupus, and at the time they were caring for a friend with cancer — but they came out of lockdown a little over a year ago, after getting vaccinated, and since then I’ve had a hard time. The Las Vegas couple had dinner with friends who later tested positive. Joe spent a day with their 25-year-old son, only to have that son diagnosed with covid 48 hours later. Last month, Susannah went to lunch with four friends, two of whom tested positive a few days later.
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“Joe and I feel like we’re still in the Last Longer with covid,” Susannah said in a recent phone interview.
She said she thinks it’s only a matter of time before she’s knocked out. This is how the game goes.
“At some point,” she says, “there’s only one person left.”
There are no winners in a pandemic. That said, if you made it into the summer of 2022 without testing positive for coronavirus yet, you might feel like you have bragging rights. Who is still in the game at this point? Not Anthony Fauci. Not President Biden, who tested positive this week. Not Denzel Washington, Camila Cabello or Lionel Messi. Not your friend who is even more cautious than you but finally caught it last week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated nearly 60% of Americans had contracted the virus at some point — and that was in late February, before the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 variants became endemic .
You might suspect that you are special – immunologically superior, a super-crook. You may also have come up with bizarre theories about why you lasted longer.
“I’ve always done strikeouts, and I don’t think anyone else does as much as I do,” Luke Martin, a 30-year-old film producer, said from his apartment in Brooklyn.
And what is a barre?
“That’s when you take a puff of weed, hold it while you take a shot, then drink a beer before you exhale.” (Note: don’t, for any reason.)
Martin does comedy in his spare time and was joking – mostly. He began striking Zoom calls with old college buddies early in the pandemic shutdown and continued even as the world reopened. One by one, people in Martin’s orbit fell ill with covid. But not him. Chance?
Yes definitely. It is certainly a coincidence.
But among the covid-deniers — those who still test negative, not the conspiracy theory team — theories as to the reasons for their good fortune abound.
“I must have superhuman immunity or something,” said Kathi Moss, a 63-year-old pediatric nurse from Southfield, Michigan.
Scientists have found no conclusive evidence for innate genetic immunity. “It would be extremely unlikely that properties of the innate immune system could protect against all infections,” said Eleanor Murray, epidemiologist and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. But Moss’ ability to dodge the virus – to his knowledge, we should add; a disclaimer that applies to all of these people, because in theory they could have had asymptomatic cases at some point – calls for an explanation. Consider she’s been a pediatric nurse who has been staring covid in the face (while fully masked) for 2 1/2 years now. And that she got into a car with her ex-husband, with the windows open, three days before he tested positive. And that a woman at the camp where she works every summer once gave Moss a henna tattoo and tested positive for coronavirus the next day.
Moss’s mysterious good fortune hasn’t made her any less worried about contracting the virus. She wants to stay in the game as long as she can, because she knows it’s not a game at all. What Moss fears most are the potential long-term effects of covid. “I keep thinking, ‘I don’t want this. I just don’t want this disease,'” she said.
Sustained vigilance may be the sensible approach. But not partying like 2020 only gets lonelier.
SF said her family avoided covid because they feel particularly vulnerable, not invulnerable. The 40-year-old mother of two, who lives outside of Boston, asked to be identified by her initials only, as she believes continuing to practice conservative mitigation strategies could make her a target online abuse. She is particularly worried about her 4 and a half year old daughter, who was born prematurely. And now that everyone seems to have let their guard down, protecting that child is harder than ever. No one else is masking up in the playground. It’s hard to explain to friends that they’re only comfortable gathering outdoors and still prefer to practice social distancing. “I feel like I have to choose between socializing my kids and keeping them safe,” SF said.
Lucas Rivas has immunocompromised parents, so he tried to be as safe as possible. He’s also a 27-year-old who wants to have a social life, but has had more nights out than he cares to remember.
“All these people my age were living their lives and, you know, I was living in real fear because I knew how widespread it was,” said Rivas, who managed to avoid testing positive despite his work as a medical assistant at an urgent care clinic in Littleton, Co. “It’s hard to get out of the office and forget what you see there and go socialize and be in big groups and things like that.”
Over the Fourth of July weekend, he couldn’t take it anymore. When a friend asked to meet at a bar, he agreed.
He had a drink, then another.
He sang karaoke with one woman, then kissed another.
He tested positive for the virus two days later.
“I was starting to think maybe I couldn’t understand,” Rivas said from solitary confinement, “and I was immediately proven wrong.”
He felt stupid, reckless, “as if I had lost two years of heavy precautions”.
This kind of self-imposed guilt drives Katrine Wallace crazy. Wallace is an epidemiologist, but lately she’s started serving as a de facto counselor/confessor to sick and comforting people who, like Rivas, have been devastated to see their streaks come to an end.
“There are a lot of people who feel like they’ve failed,” said Wallace, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health. “‘I’ve been so good for so long’ – I hear that every day.” She assures these people that they’re not bad – it’s the new variants that are bad. “They’ve done really well if they get it now,” Wallace said.
At times like these, she tries to avoid mentioning that she herself hasn’t tested positive yet. No need to scrub it.
Tony Freeman is certain that he will be eliminated from the game in the fall. Freeman, 63, is an actor who has been on the cast of “The Lion King” since its Broadway debut more than 20 years ago. For the past five years, he’s been on standby, ready to take over if another actor falls ill. Which was great, especially last year when he was able to sit backstage, safely hidden behind a mask. But recently, he was asked to reprise the role of Timon, the meerkat, for four months on a national tour. The role has him singing “Hakuna Matata” eight times a week as the unmasked masses cackle and cough and loudly prove to their neighbors that they know all the lyrics. (Bouquet of hyenas.)
That means no worries. . . ? Nah, not anymore. Freeman no longer relishes his chances of going through the rest of the pandemic unscathed. “I don’t think there’s anything special about my body,” he said. “If you saw it, you would agree.” The cast members test six days a week and he’s just waiting for a second line to appear.
Pessimism is a way to protect yourself. Everyone’s in the game until they’re not. And bragging about having dodged covetousness for two and a half years is like singing “Bloody Mary” three times while looking at yourself in the mirror. You don’t really want to tempt fate. Although you may not be able to help yourself, regardless of the consequences.
“To date, I have finally tested positive for the iconic virus COVID-19,” Luke Martin – the one of the “crossed out” – announced in an email to The Washington Post shortly after bragging that he did not. still caught.
Reached by phone, Martin said he doesn’t know where he caught the virus, but he has a theory as to why it’s come for him now. He hasn’t struck out in two weeks – ironically, he was trying to get healthier.
On the first day of his diagnosis, Martin said he felt pretty good, just a little tired and very disappointed.
“I said loud and clear to all my circles that I didn’t get it,” he said. “Now the king has fallen.”
Last week Joe Altman from Las Vegas took a calculated risk and entered the World Series of Poker. He survived round after round, eventually finishing 31st out of nearly 8,700 players. He wasn’t the last one standing, but still – not a bad race.
Then, three days after his elimination from the tournament, he passed out with a small dry cough. Susannah gave her a coronavirus test; the second line was faint but visible. His own case was confirmed three days later.
“We got out of the Last Longer,” Susannah said over the phone. She wasn’t surprised. That’s how the game goes.