Merely Exposed

Photo by the Author

I remember as a child coming down with hand, foot, and mouth disease, a a fairly common and highly contagious viral infection most often caused by coxsackieviruses. Once one child in a classroom has it, you can be sure that others will soon have it as well. In my case, I developed painful blisters on the palms of my hands that kept bursting when I did anything a typical preschooler does throughout their day, from playing with toys to trying to do cartwheels. My hands were covered in white gauze for days. Though I was still just a toddler, I can still remember looking at my hands when the gauze was changed, seeing the oozing blisters and temporarily disfigured skin, wondering if my hands were always going to be gross.

My mom was a single mother at the time, and I attended a preschool that I loved, Happy Face. My father paid almost nothing in child support, and my mom worked hourly jobs that did not pay her for any hours missed. And so she had to send me to preschool no matter if I was healthy or sick.

The preschool must have had other parents in similar situations because a room was set aside just for sick children. There were cots in the room for the children to take naps on, something not in the other rooms, and a teacher would make sure we took our medicine, check our temperatures, help us in the bathroom, clean up our messes, and, in this case, change out my gauze when needed. Children in the sick room did not get to play with children in the other rooms, and they did not go to the playground during recesses. We stayed in the sick room all day, and even though we could hear the other children playing and learning their lessons throughout the day (the sick room was very quiet except for the occasional coughs or cries), we could only leave when our parents came to pick us up.

I remember laying on one of the cots while I was sick, holding my gauzed hands up in the air, wondering what my skin was doing underneath it all. I did not understand why I had to be in the sick room, and I am sure that I kept asking when I could leave. Children are not typically known for their patience, especially when it comes to dealing with boredom.

Eventually, my hands healed, the gauze could be lifted, and I could rejoin my classmates. I would pass by the closed sick room door and feel happy that my time in there was over (at least until the next illness struck).

Recently I was exposed to a different highly contagious virus, one that has led to the deaths of millions of people and the suffering of millions more, and have been in quarantine for the past several days. After two years, COVID-19 is integrated into our daily lives like nothing I have ever experienced before, and will likely remain a part of our lives for many years to come as wave after wave rolls through with new variants that expose our weaknesses in public health and disease prevention. So far, I am negative for the virus, most likely due to being fully vaccinated and boosted.

What I have learned from this most recent experience is that some view these exposures as trivial and, even when the circumstances are the same, two different person’s exposures are treated as if they do not in fact carry the same risks. I am told that I was “merely” exposed, when that exposure was to someone living within my home during the beginning of an infection, hugging them, sharing close quarters at times during many conversations that included lots of laughter, with no masks on.

In the minds of some, “merely” exposed does not mean the same as exposed with no diminishing qualifiers. And while someone who is exposed to COVID-19 within their home should react in ways that are protective of others, those who are “merely” exposed should be governed by rules that are not protective of others. Do not quarantine and do not disrupt routine.

This has been a learning experience.

I assume that the rules for “merely” exposed are due to the ways I have reacted to the pandemic in general. I wear a KN-95 mask in public at all times. I do not attend gatherings, large or small. I avoid places where social distancing is not possible. I am fully vaccinated and boosted.

In other words, I do what I can to protect not just myself but also others. We have learned with the omicron variant that not even these measures are enough sometimes.

And so because of how careful I am when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, my exposure falls into the “merely” exposed category as if my carefulness in public will prevent infection when not masked around those living in my home. As if any possible infection I might have will somehow be less of an infection by someone who does not practice all of the steps of prevention I follow.

This has been a learning experience.

Just as I have done throughout this pandemic to be protective of others, I did what was right. Upon learning of my exposure, I quarantined and tested. I notified people who have been near me that I was exposed, even though I always wore a mask around those who were near. I let them know of my negative test results.

What I have learned is that what I consider the right thing to do is not what others consider. There are apparently gradations to exposures like mine even when the circumstances are the same, and so the right thing to do is to act as if there was no exposure.

And so this is how the pandemic rages on, fueled by inequities like and far worse than this. As long as we have a mindset that applies different standards to different people, that works to belittle and shame those who know and do better, we will continue to have COVID-19 sicken, injure, and take the lives of people.

If we have learned anything from this pandemic it is that what you and I do has an effect on the lives of others within our communities and globally. If you and I can do our best to avoid infection, we also do our best to prevent the spread, which prevents loss of health and life for those we know and for many more that we will never know.

That preschool sick room crosses my mind often these days. We did not fight against it, and neither did the parents who had to send their children to school. Our parents knew it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. It was just the way of things to prevent exposure and to keep other children from getting sick. It was common sense.

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