Long after recovering from the coronavirus, some survivors report a lingering side-effect: Neighbors, friends, and strangers still fear and distrust them.
COVID-19 patients who recover from the disease can safely be around others three days after their fever subsides and ten days after their first symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the stigma associated with the disease, which is currently surging in Texas, can follow survivors for months afterward, severing friendships or turning mundane interactions hostile.
"People are really just weird around me," said Danielle Peterson, who recovered from COVID in Minnesota. Although her doctors told her she is no longer contagious, the disease left her with a persistent cough, which she says provokes fear in others.
"I might run out of breath and have to use an inhaler while I’m talking to somebody at Target, as stupid as it sounds. The minute something like that happens, they walk away from me."
For instance, she needed to bring her dogs to a veterenarian, but when an employee heard her cough over the phone, she explained that she had recovered from COVID and was no longer infectious. "And she put me on hold and came back," Peterson says, "and they refused to see me and my dogs."
Another COVID survivor, Sheri Colbert, recovered more than a month ago, but has been unable to convince her parents that they shouldn't be afraid of her anymore.
"I was feeling better by Mother's Day and I bought my mom a gift. I went over to see her and she wouldn’t come near me. She told me to leave the gift in the garage so they could wait for the virus to die off of it before they would see it. And it’s still in her garage two months later."
Her parents insist that she may somehow still carry the virus. But to her, their abundance of caution feels like a rejection.
While she was still fighting off the disease, Colbert said her daughter's boyfriend blamed her for catching the virus, and accused her of potentially infecting him.
"To have people turn around and say you’re at fault, this is your fault, it makes you almost not want to live," Colbert said, "I was coughing so hard I was vomiting up blood. And all I could think is that no one wants me around."
Other survivors have noticed the small gestures that indicate the fear others feel toward them. "I thought she was going to trip over her own two feet trying to get away from me," said Ginnie Welsh, a recovered COVID patient from Maryland, describing a person's reaction to learning about her recovery.
"People are very very cautious around me," Peterson said, "and it makes me feel like, I guess I know how people feel that had leprosy."
The fear and mistrust that survivors encounter is the byproduct of how we navigate the world during this pandemic, says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "You have an unfamiliar pathogen, it's something you can't see, and so you put into place a mental map of what is a safe person and an unsafe person and what is a safe place or an unsafe place... It gives you a sense of order. It gives you a sense of control.
Dividing others into the healthy and unhealthy creates a false dichotomy, Dr. Schoch-Spana says. Often times, for instance in a grocery store aisle, we don't have the necessary information, and one way or another, the pandemic affects us all.
A lesson that medical providers learned from the HIV/AIDS epidemic was to implement universal precautions against the spread of the virus, and to treat all patients as potentially infected, so as not to treat HIV-positive patients any differently. Schoch-Spana says the same lesson should apply to the current pandemic.
"We should all assume that we're all potentially infected, so there’s no shaming and blaming."
The result of the current climate of fear and shame is that some survivors feel isolated and shunned even after they no longer need to physically quarantine themselves.
"There's the physical health impacts," Schoch-Spana observes, "but there's also the mental health impacts. An individual who's been sick may get through the physical infection, but still run the risk of being shunned socially, and having the emotional distress as a result of the disease."
Sheri Colbert is living through the distress Schoch-Spana describes. "If everyone around you says you’re a danger, you start to feel like you’re a danger," she says. "I wake up almost every night from nightmares thinking that I’ve made the people around me die."
Colbert has started seeing a therapist and taking anxiety medication, but she still doesn't feel in control of the negativity surrounding her experience with COVID.