On Monday morning, MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle returned to her post after what I had assumed was a two-week vacation following the grueling, 24/7 post-Election Day coverage that had consumed Ruhle and many of her news colleagues.But then she opened her show with a startling announcement. “After testing positive for COVD-19, I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks in bed, isolating and taking all the precautions needed to protect myself, my family, and my community,” Ruhle said, looking grimly into the camera, a graphic showing the pandemic’s latest toll—283,163 Americans now dead—framed behind her. “My husband my kids, they have it too. We still don’t know how we got it. But we are getting better and we are very, very lucky.”
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) December 7, 2020
The news jolted me, because Ruhle is just the latest person I’ve heard of to have been infected with COVID-19 despite apparently taking all the precautions recommended by the CDC. “I want you to know I did all the right things,” she said. “I wore a mask, I kept my distance and I still got COVID, and I realized that doing the right thing isn’t enough. Had we not tested our family, we would have potentially exposed our colleagues, our neighbors, our kids’ schools.”
There was a similar shock a few weeks ago, when MSNBC prime-time anchor Rachel Maddow announced that her longtime partner, the artist and photographer Susan Mikula, had become infected with coronavirus and developed a case so serious the couple thought she might die. As with Ruhle, Maddow said she and Mikula had taken all the proper precautions and were uncertain how she had become infected. (Maddow, who self-quarantined for two weeks at home, tested negative.)
Here’s why Maddow and Ruhle’s messages resonated so deeply with me: It’s not like they’re Rudy Giuliani, who is now in the hospital with coronavirus after going mask-less at all those bat-shit-crazy press conferences, or like the dozens of Trump administration officials who have tested positive after attending one superspreader event after another. There is no surprise that they, including President Trump, paid the price of their reckless actions.
No, they are like too many people I know: People who thought they were taking every prevention possible and still got infected with the virus, some mildly, some quite seriously. “I don’t know how I got it,” is a refrain I hear all too often. And that’s scary.
We’re now ten months into this pandemic, one that began with a terrifying suddenness, with thousands of people in my hometown of New York City falling ill—and hundreds dying, some within days of their diagnosis. Every encounter, especially in those early days when confusion reigned, seemed fraught with danger. Will I get coronavirus from a door knob, from an orange I examined at the grocery story, from the person standing too close to me on the subway, or from the restaurant diner two tables over who just coughed?And so I, like so many others, entered lockdown, barely leaving my apartment for weeks at a time.Gradually I began to emerge. I got tested and visited friends in Connecticut, traveling in a near-empty train car and sitting as far away as I could from my lone fellow passenger. I got tested and joined three friends for an outside dinner at a Manhattan restaurant, separated from the next table by a plexiglass shield that had been erected on the sidewalk. I got tested and flew to visit close friends in Michigan, flying Delta because it blocked the middle seats, obsessively wiping down every available surface, and not eating, drinking, or using the bathroom at any time during my flight.Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Social distance. Those were the words I kept repeating to myself — increasingly confident that they would keep me safe.
Now a new fear has emerged, prompted by disclosures like Ruhle’s: What if doing all the right things still doesn’t protect you against the virus? For me and my friends, most of whom I haven’t seen in person in months, one topic of conversation now dominates our email exchanges, group chats, and Zoom calls: Why do some people get the virus and some people don’t?
It’s a question that science is still trying to answer. Initial fears about picking up the virus from surfaces have largely been quelled, meaning you don’t have to worry about wearing gloves to handle your mail or scrubbing your groceries with Clorox. The key culprit remains those droplets that can hang in the air for an hour or more, making indoor gatherings largely unsafe activities, especially if you take your mask off.
But health experts are still trying to determine why some people get can exposed to the virus and never show any symptoms, while others can become critically ill. It’s a conundrum that we may not be able to resolve for some time. “The biggest problem is that everybody wants a simple answer,” Dr. Arturo Casadevall, who chairs the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. “What nobody wants to hear is that it’s unpredictable, because many variables play together in ways that you can’t put together: your history, your nutrition, how you got infected, how much [virus] you got— even the time of the day you got infected. And all these variables combine in ways that are unpredictable.”
Scientists are also trying to understand one seemingly contradictory phenomenon of the coronavirus: Most infected people don’t pass on the coronavirus to someone else—but a small number pass it on to many others in so-called super-spreader events, like a wedding or a crowded bar. “You can think about throwing a match at kindling,” Ben Althouse, principal research scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling, explained to The New York Times earlier this year. “You throw one match, it may not light the kindling. You throw another match, it may not light the kindling. But then one match hits in the right spot, and all of a sudden the fire goes up.”
As the medical journal, The Lancet, recently noted, much research remains to be done .“As cases of COVID-19 increase globally, we need to more fully understand the transmission routes,” the authors wrote. “It is crucial that we embrace new research and do not rely on recommendations based on old data so that clearer and more effective infection control guidance can be provided in the face of pandemic fatigue.”
Meanwhile, a vaccine is coming, but it probably won’t be available to the general public until June or July. What do we do until then? It’s beginning to feel a lot like March, with the same anxieties and sleepless nights, and so many questions. Is it time to go back into a total lockdown? Are there any activities that are actually safe to do? Can I see my friends? (In a recent survey of 700 epidemiologists by The New York Times, 90% said they would feel comfortable going to the grocery store and 62% would gather outdoors with friends, if masked. Only 3% would attend a wedding or funeral or go on a date “with someone they don’t know well.”)
As Stephanie Ruhle reminded us all on Monday, the coronavirus remains a mysterious assailant and we must stay vigilant until that mystery is solved.
“There is so much more that I now know after having COVID myself,” Ruhle said. “Most importantly, we don’t have a vaccine today. We have a virus that is ravaging our country, and we need to do a whole lot more to stop it. And as a person who is sick and scared, I am begging you, please take this seriously. It is not over.”