When Daniel Storm found out he had Covid-19, he was shocked. He had been so careful, barely socializing and always wearing a mask whenever he left the house.
His PCR test results arrived by email on Jan. 8. As he stared at the word “positive,” Storm, 52, of Wilmington, North Carolina, said he felt angry and disappointed.
Then, relief washed over him.
“I feel like I’ve been kind of walking on pins and needles, like omicron is everywhere,” Storm said of the hyper transmissible Covid variant.
He had received his Covid vaccinations and booster, but he has been terrified he might unwittingly pass the virus onto someone more vulnerable. Getting the news about his case — which ended up being an asymptomatic one that he discovered by testing on a whim — enabled Storm to isolate at home and then feel more relaxed, both for himself and for those around him.
“I feel even more protected now,” he said.
As the pandemic enters its third year, some with recent Covid diagnoses are finding that contracting the illness they worked so hard to dodge for so long has brought them an unexpected reprieve from anxiety — instead of compounding it further.
Their relief is hardly universal, given that the disease remains a grave threat to immunocompromised people, older people and many others.
But for those at low risk for Covid complications, a positive test result at this point in the pandemic can bring surprisingly positive emotions, along with a range of other feelings.
It may seem illogical, but psychologists say it’s an example of anticipatory anxiety, where the dread you experience before an event ends up being worse than the event itself.
“You’re in this constant state of anxiety of, ‘What happens if I get it?’” said Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and the senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “It kind of gives you permission to stop worrying about it a little bit.”
That may be especially true with omicron, which studies suggest causes less severe symptoms than previous variants, especially for vaccinated people.
As a result, many, particularly those vaccinated and boosted, say getting Covid despite their best efforts to avoid it has felt like an opportunity to surrender.
“We don’t have to be worrying and waiting anymore,” said Sarah Moon, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, who has gotten her booster shot and just tested positive Friday after her 4-year-old, Mira, had Covid earlier in the week. “The bad thing has happened, and now we can get to the work of managing it.”
But experts caution that no one should intentionally seek out Covid.
“There’s an individual, social, public health responsibility of everyone to not get sick because they tend to get other people sick,” including those who could have deadly complications or those not eligible for vaccinations, such as children under 5, said Dr. Robert Havey, the deputy director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Plus, he added, there is still a degree of unpredictability as to who might be hospitalized or develop long Covid.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get unlucky,” Havey said.
Short-lived relief? What we know about immunity after infection
Whether you are vaccinated or not, getting Covid bolsters your immunity against reinfection — at least in the short term.
“It’s like getting a little booster shot,” Havey said, explaining that it’s “very unusual” for people who don’t have weakened immune systems to get reinfected within 90 days of having Covid.
After that, all bets are off. Havey has seen a dramatic increase in reinfections with the arrival of omicron in patients who caught earlier strains.
Reinfections are happening in both vaccinated as well as unvaccinated people, he said, although the protection afterward is stronger among those vaccinated.
Still, the relief upon catching Covid can be about more than just feeling protected.
Makie Fuse, 30, lives in Melbourne, Australia, a nation that used strict lockdowns to contain the pandemic earlier and now is seeing a record number of infections amid the spread of omicron and a loosening of restrictions.
Fuse is not yet eligible for her booster in Australia, but she has received her first two Covid vaccinations. She tested positive last week after developing a sore throat that kept getting worse to the point of being “unbearable,” she said.
She felt scared when she found out she had Covid, but after so long thinking she might have it, she said there was also something relieving in knowing she finally did.
“For the past two years, we’ve been so stressed with lockdowns, but also with the symptoms. Every headache, every sore throat, every feeling of being tired could be a symptom,” she said.
It felt like the first time she didn’t have to question herself.
“It was that relief of ‘I’m not crazy. I am feeling this, and I tested positive, and I’m going through something that a lot of other people have gone through as well,’” she said.
In Rhode Island, Moon’s daughter got a mild case of Covid, but Moon, her husband and her 6-year-old son, all of whom are vaccinated, initially tested negative. By the end of the week, Moon had developed symptoms.
She likened the arrival of Covid in her household to a horror film.
“I was waiting for this. You’ve been in this scary movie, and you’ve been running so long that you know that the bad guy is going to show up and get you,” she said.
Catching Covid is not inevitable
While experts agree it may feel as though Covid is inescapable, they say it’s not inevitable that everyone will get it.
There are signs that the omicron-driven surge might soon peak nationwide, and it has already started to in parts of the country.
As we move through the peak, Havey said, it’s important to take the same precautions that have been recommended throughout the pandemic: wearing masks, washing hands and getting vaccinated and boosted, if you haven’t already.
And there are ways to feel less anxious without having to go through Covid to get there, Wright said.
“It really depends on focusing on what’s in your control, making sure you are still doing the protective things you need to do and avoiding high-risk situations, particularly if you have a vulnerable person in your life,” she said. “Once I’ve done all these things, how can I continue to live my life in a way that I am protecting myself but doesn’t make me feel stuck?”
Everyone’s risk tolerance will be different, she said, and might vary by the day based on factors such as changing infection rates in a community or simply someone’s mood.
“Give yourself permission to have that fluctuate a little, because you might be comfortable one week going out to a restaurant, and then cases go up and you step it back,” Wright said. “It’s about allowing yourself that flexibility without judgment.”
For Storm, being vaccinated, boosted and now cleared of his asymptomatic infection makes him feel comfortable enough to go see a local band outdoors, something he likely wouldn’t have done before getting sick. He is not ready to go to someplace like a movie theater and sit next to a stranger whose vaccination status he doesn’t know.
But because Covid-19 is likely going to become an endemic illness, like the flu, he hopes to find a way to safely resume more of his pre-pandemic activities.
“I’m not going to be bottled up in my house,” he said. “I’m just going to do the best I can.”