By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
It began late on a Monday morning with a tickle in my left nostril as I sat working on my laptop in a local library. By late afternoon, my nose was starting to drip and I was frequently sneezing in multiple gusts while I drove my school bus.
“Great,” I thought, assuming I was coming down with a cold like the mild one I had last fall. Fully vaccinated and boosted, and having battled the original strain of Covid-19 in Sept. 2020, I wasn’t worried about a relapse. Cases here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley have fallen to where mask mandates were dropped in early March. Word of a new, highly contagious but less severe variant (BA.2) spreading in New York City had reached my ears, but I wasn’t concerned.
So, betraying all I profess to believe in about the importance of protecting others, I let my bug run its course while not masking up. I plead guilty to being a dangerous dope … with a feeble excuse: I was seduced into it by my complacency and pandemic burnout.
Since the arrival of Covid in the USA in early 2020, I’ve embraced masks as required. I raged at those who refused to take this most simple measure to check the spread of a potentially deadly virus. Wearing one wasn’t intolerable as many people claimed, though I disliked how my glasses fogged up, I kicked myself whenever I forgot (more often than I care to admit) to bring a mask when I went out. So I welcomed the end of the mandate and felt pretty bullet-proof as far as Covid and its endless variants were concerned.
Now, you would think that when my snifflin’ and snufflin’ and sneezin’ started, I would have plunked a mask on my puss just to be extra safe.
You would be wrong.
I felt better the next morning, so I went to work unconcerned. Then the sneezing returned around midday while I was at the library where I spend my daily four-hour breaks. I pulled a mask out of my coat pocket, but it was dirty and covered with lint, so I decided to keep my distance from others and see how things went.
That night I went home with mild sinus congestion and a faint headache. Curious, I took my temperature: 100.2,° a low-grade fever typical of a cold. Some Internet research informed me that Covid sufferers rarely report sneezing. Oh, I could have and should have used our home test to confirm or dispel my worries, but I reckoned I was probably overreacting. So I took an ibuprofen and went to bed.
Then the coughing started.
The sensation in my lungs was like the tickle in my left sinus. Lying down activated it. Dry and persistent, it ruined my sleep but oddly vanished, along with the fever, by the time I left for work. I considered calling in sick, but like most school districts, ours has been hammered by the national bus driver shortage. I didn’t want to burden my co-workers. Besides, I felt remarkably good at a time of day when colds are usually at their worst. That continued through the week.
By Thursday, I consoled myself that I hadn’t become a snotty, phlegmy juicy fruit but I was mystified by how my vague headache, dry cough, slightly stuffy nose and occasional fits of sneezing kept coming and going, especially in the middle of the day, a time when, in my experience, cold symptoms tend to abate.
Upon arriving home that evening, my wife remarked on my noticeable but hardly Code Red condition. When I had Covid back in 2020, we had continued sleeping in the same bed even after I developed a 102.5° fever that lasted eight days. “If I haven’t caught it by now, I probably won’t,” Victoria had said when my test three or four days after the onset of my symptoms had come up positive. (She never did get Covid.)
Now, though, I had no fever. Nor had I lost my appetite and energy as I did with Covid. And compared to the monster head colds I used to get when I was younger, this was a mere pest. So we remained in close contact … and endured another fitful night of me snoring and coughing and her poking me sharply in the ribs with her elbow.
I lay awake questioning my behavior. Why was I being so lazy about masking up or staying home? Masks have cut down on the transmission of flu and other common viruses. Wasn’t I worried about infecting others? Even if it was only a cold, why should anyone else share in this fun?
I don’t know.
All I can say is my bug never got bad enough to truly concern me — even after I read that some BA.2 sufferers are reporting cold symptoms — and I thought that simply keeping my distance from others and opening the driver’s window with the overhead fans running on my bus would be good enough.
But to be brutally honest, I was more sick of masks than I was willing to admit. So I just kept hoping for the best.
On Friday, my symptoms came and went as usual — they always acted up while I was at the library where I cringed after emitting a cough or loud sniff that drew the attention of some staff and patrons — but my head steadily cleared up as the day progressed.
On Saturday evening, my cough suddenly vanished as if someone had flipped a switch. So I returned to work on Monday feeling completely well but queasy with guilt for having done so little for the “just-in-case” safety of others. It didn’t help when my wife spent Tuesday under the weather on our sofa. Fortunately, she fought her sniffles off in two days, and all students on my bus have been present and accounted for.
Human nature is an odd duck. We can know intellectually that our actions carry serious risks (I used to smoke even while my mother-in-law was dying of Marlboro-induced lung cancer) but still convince ourselves that nothing bad will happen to us or anyone else. We can go into full-blown denial, as many have done with Covid. We can talk a good game as we mount the steed of righteousness our peers are riding, but in truth never seize the reins.
I realize I am now donning a mask only in places where most people have them on, and I do it to avoid having them think I’m a jerk who is openly defying them. So how sincere is my concern for others? My cold left me feeling like a big fat hypocrite.
That nagging notion will take a lot longer to shake than the cold I just had. I don’t think I’m an outlier, though, in that while there are many people whose refusal to wear masks is an intentional middle finger to those who do, I suspect many of us mean no harm but merely succumb to selfish laziness.
All I can do now is vow to do better next time.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.