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Hiding COVID-19: Why People Keep Illness a Secret

It’s impossible to speculate about just how many COVID camouflagers are out there, given that, well, their whole aim is to keep their illness under wraps. I was able to connect with three of them, all on the condition of anonymity, to suss out why they made the call to hide a life-threatening illness from the people who most value their life.

One Philadelphia father who got the virus in the spring confessed to me that his son still doesn’t know what he’s been through. He doesn’t want his 12-year-old chirping at his friends, “Dude, my dad got the ’rona,” he said. An anguished health-care worker in New York told me about the baggage from shrouding her illness from her mother and grandmother. Her mom went into full-on panic mode in March, blaming the pandemic on 5G towers and chemists, so why add to her hysteria?

The grandest coronavirus cover-up I encountered, by far, came from Michelle, a flight attendant for a major airline who asked to be identified by her first name so that word wouldn’t reach her family. In late March, when most Americans were still settling into their year of quarantine and social distancing, Michelle was holed up in her Connecticut home for six weeks, battling a virus that robbed her of her sense of smell and taste, then her breath, and then strengthened its grip as it nearly put her in the hospital. Besides her boyfriend, a cousin, and one friend, no one knows what she’s been through.

Since early June, she and I have had a series of long, meandering conversations about her illness. Before coming down with COVID-19, Michelle said, she never kept secrets from her family. She splits her time between Connecticut and Florida, where she lives right down the street from her parents in the same gated community. As a teenager, Michelle would always fess up after borrowing her dad’s car. She’s 60 years old now, and her parents have met every single man she’s ever dated. There was one fender bender a few years back that she didn’t tell them about, but she swears that’s it.

That was before the pandemic. In late March, Michelle worked on a packed flight from Tel Aviv to the United States, and so many of the passengers seemed sick. Three days later, she knew something was wrong. “I had hallucinations,” she said. “I was really, really sick. I don’t think I had enough breath to even talk. I’ve had the flu before; that’s aches and pains. This is unbearable pain.” Her doctor sent her to a drive-through clinic for a COVID-19 test. She knew even before she heard the result: positive.

Michelle put herself in full quarantine. Right away, she told her boyfriend, who lives nearby, that she had COVID-19 and wouldn’t be seeing him for a while. She stayed at home all alone as the virus clamped down on her body. When she lost her sense of smell, she would mistakenly let her dinner go in circles in the microwave until it burned up. When swallowing got tough, she forced herself to drink water. When the virus smothered her ability to speak, she settled on sharing the illness with a few more people, texting a friend and a cousin.

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