Opinion:

Falling ill but testing negative: So now what?

As of this writing, the United States has tested approximately 313,000 people for the coronavirus, and more than 270,000 have tested negative. I’m one of them. Here’s my story, offered without a definite conclusion.

I traveled a lot in the weeks before America went into lockdown, promoting a book about the decadence of the developed world. I was in New York, Washington, Boston, Los Angeles — then home to Connecticut, then back to New York and D.C. again.

I thought of myself as woke to the coronavirus: I had followed reports from Wuhan via grainy Chinese videos and fringe alarmist Twitter, warned skeptical relatives to stock up and prepare to bunker down, and filled our basement shelves with rice and beans, paper towels, etc.

But I also felt, a bit idiotically, that if I was savvy enough, I could stay one step ahead of the virus — giving up handshakes early, carrying Purell everywhere, projecting from the early case numbers to figure out how long I could safely travel, and when the virus would explode and the country would shut down.

My shutdown prediction was correct: I got home and started canceling future book events just before the lockdowns started. But the day after my return, I felt achy and strange, and the following morning I woke up with a dry cough, tightness in my chest and pain across my lungs.

I went to the emergency room, where the doctors told me that my symptoms and travel history made them presume I had the virus, but that I wasn’t sick enough for them to test. They told me to self-quarantine for two weeks, or at least until drive-thru testing centers opened, and stay away from my (eight-months pregnant) wife and kids as much as possible.

Within the same day, though, two of our kids were sick as well, with hacking chest coughs, mild fevers and congestion. My wife had a dry cough and body aches. So we quarantined as a family. I tried to write to everyone I’d encountered in the previous week to let them know I was a suspected case. And we tried to figure out how to get a test.

Over the next several days my lung pain got worse, though I never ran a fever. I would feel short of breath after reading to the kids and lightheaded after getting up. Talking on the phone was like running a race. I have had one serious illness in my life and innumerable colds and flus; none of my symptoms resembled any of those past experiences.

Three days after the ER visit, I managed to get a doctor’s script to test myself and my 4-year-old son (the youngest and sickest of our kids) at a drive-thru center. It was a surreal episode, a science-fiction scene dropped down in a faded industrial town, with space-suited nurses and masked doctors directing traffic while unmasked construction workers hung out casually nearby. We rolled down our windows, they swabbed each of our noses once, promised results in three days, and sent us on our way.

Then we waited. Family and neighbors delivered us groceries, leaving them on the front porch like gifts from kindly elves. The kids had a few bad nights, then started to improve. We tried to take walks in the neighborhood (the ER doctors had recommended it), but quickly found that the narrow sidewalks required us to constantly circle away from our neighbors, which required shouted explanations that provoked bemusement in some cases, fright in others. So we drove instead, looking for deserted corners of state parks, an empty greensward near a monastery, anywhere with grass and air and little chance of human contact.

Five days went by with no test results. My symptoms stabilized, fluctuated and then ebbed a little; my wife’s mostly went away. We had friends in Minnesota who were having a similar experience: Their family had been on a Disney cruise just before the lockdowns and come back with an illness; it seemed like a flu for most of them, but the husband, a man of very different physique and temperament from me, had my symptoms — shortness of breath, chest tension, windedness.

Finally, we received my results; the sample had apparently been sent to the wrong lab and the lab had called the wrong doctor’s office to report them. The test was negative. Trying to explain my symptoms, our doctor speculated about flus that cause asthmatic attacks in otherwise healthy people. But she also noted that plenty of infected people can have negative tests from a single nose swab. (In one study of Chinese patients, the nose swab detected only about 60% of coronavirus cases.)

The next day, our friends in Minnesota got the husband’s results. They were negative as well.

My son’s test was delayed — another day, they said. That was three days ago, and yesterday our doctor called with the news that they apparently were unable to complete his test because they needed to redo part of it, and they had insufficient material from the initial swab.

So that concludes our testing experience. For our family quarantine, it’s been almost the full 14 days. I feel better, though there are still flashes of chest pain and discomfort. My wife seems fine now. The kids have what amounts to the remains of a cold, nothing frightening any longer. Whether we had it or not, we appear to be coming through OK.

So did we have it? There are three possibilities. The first is that on my travels I acquired a different virus, one we shared throughout our family, that happened to mimic some of the crucial symptoms of the coronavirus during the exact moment the outbreak accelerated.

The second is that we all just had a normal flu, and there is some kind of mass psychology during pandemics that makes people who fall sick with other illnesses experience some kind of sympathetic symptomology that mirrors the more dangerous disease.

The third possibility is that my negative results were wrong, and my son’s test would have been positive if the testing weren’t incompetent.

From our family’s perspective I hope it’s the third case; it would mean that we’ve been through the Thing Itself, hopefully acquired some kind of immunity, and can breathe a little easier as we approach the birth of our child.

From the country’s perspective, on the other hand, it would be better if we didn’t have it, because it would be bad news for all our containment efforts if false negatives were plentiful.

But since we can’t know, my family will be exiting our “do we have the coronavirus?” experience without answers, and entering back into the same uncertainty as everybody else.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.