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Joe and Susannah Altman are serious poker players. Sometimes, when they play in tournaments, they'll place what's called a "Last Longer" bet with friends who see which of them can outlast the others. The pandemic kept the Altmans, both 58, away from the in-person tables for over a year - Susannah has lupus, and at the time, they were caring for a friend with cancer - but they came out of lockdown a little over a year ago, after getting vaccinated, and since then have had some close calls. The Las Vegas couple dined with friends who subsequently tested positive. Joe spent a day with their 25-year-old son, only to have that son be diagnosed with covid 48 hours later. Just last month, Susannah went to lunch with four friends, two of whom tested positive days later.
"Joe and I feel like we're still in the Last Longer with covid," Susannah said in a recent phone interview.
She said she figures it's only a matter of time before she gets knocked out. That's the way the game goes.
"At some point," she says, "there's only one person left."
There are no winners in a pandemic. That said, if you've made it to the summer of 2022 without yet testing positive for the coronavirus, you might feel entitled to some bragging rights. Who's still in the game at this point? Not Anthony Fauci. Not Denzel Washington, Camila Cabello or Lionel Messi. Not your friend who's even more cautious than you but who finally caught it last week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that nearly 60% of Americans had contracted the virus at some point - and that was as of the end of February, before the extremely contagious BA.4 and BA.5 variants became rampant.
Video: President Biden tests positive for coronavirus, will isolate
You might suspect that you are special - immunologically superior, a super-dodger. You also might have come up with some bizarre theories about why you've lasted longer.
"I've always been doing strikeouts, and I don't think that anyone else is doing them as much as I am," said Luke Martin, a 30-year-old film producer, from his apartment in Brooklyn.
And what's a strikeout?
"That's when you take a hit of weed, hold it in while you rip a shot and then chug a beer before exhaling." (Note: Do not do this, for any reason.)
Martin does comedy in his spare time and was joking - mostly. He did start doing strikeouts on Zoom calls with old college buddies at the onset of the pandemic shutdown and continued even when the world reopened. One by one, the people in Martin's orbit fell ill with covid. But not him. Coincidence?
Yes, definitely. That is definitely a coincidence.
But among covid-deniers - the always-testing-negative ones, not the conspiracy theory crew - theories about the reasons for their good fortune abound.
"I must have superhuman immunity or something," mused Kathi Moss, a 63-year-old pediatric nurse from Southfield, Mich.
Scientists have found no conclusive evidence of innate genetic immunity. "It would be extremely unlikely that any innate immune system properties could protect against all infections," said Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. But Moss's ability to duck the virus - to her knowledge, we should add; a disclaimer that applies to all these folks, since in theory they could have had asymptomatic cases at some point - does cry out for an explanation. Consider that she's a pediatric nurse who has been staring covid in the face (while fully masked) for 2 and one-half years now. And that she rode in a car with her ex-husband, with the windows up, three days before he tested positive. And that a woman at the camp where she works every summer gave Moss a henna tattoo one day and reported a positive coronavirus result the next.
Moss's mysterious good fortune has not made her less worried about contracting the virus. She wants to stay in the game as long as she can, because she knows it's not a game at all. What Moss fears the most is the potential long-term effects of covid. "I just keep thinking, 'I don't want it. I just don't want this disease,' " she said.
Sustained vigilance may be the sensible approach. But not-partying like it's 2020 is only getting lonelier.
S.F. said her household has avoided covid because she feels uniquely vulnerable, not invulnerable. The 40-year-old mother of two, who lives outside Boston, asked to be identified only by her initials because she thinks continuing to practice conservative mitigation strategies could make her a target for online abuse. She has been especially worried about her 4 -and one-half -year-old daughter, who was born prematurely. And now that everyone seems to have let their guard down, protecting that child feels harder than ever. No one else is masking at the playground. It's tricky to explain to friends that they are only comfortable gathering outdoors and still prefer to practice social distancing. "I feel like I'm forced to choose between my kids' socialization and their safety," S.F. said.
Lucas Rivas has immunocompromised parents, so he's tried to be as safe as possible. He's also a 27-year-old who wants to have a social life, but who has passed on more nights out than he cares to remember.
"All these people my age were living their lives and, you know, I was really kind of living in fear of it because I knew how prevalent it was," said Rivas, who managed to avoid testing positive despite working as a medical assistant at an urgent-care clinic in Littleton, Co. "It's hard to walk out of the office and forget what you see there and go socialize and be in big groups and things like that."
Over the July Fourth weekend, he couldn't take it anymore. When a friend asked to meet at a bar, he agreed.
He had one drink, then another.
He sang karaoke with one woman, then kissed another.
He tested positive for the virus two days later.
"I was starting to think that maybe I couldn't get it," Rivas said from isolation, "and I was instantly proven wrong."
He felt stupid, reckless, "like I wasted two years of heavy precautions."
That kind of self-imposed guilt drives Katrine Wallace crazy. Wallace is an epidemiologist, but lately she has begun to serve as a de facto counselor/confessor for the covid-sick, comforting people who, like Rivas, have been devastated to see their streaks come to an end.
"There's a lot of people who feel like they failed," said Wallace, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health. " 'I've been so good for so long' - I hear that every day." She assures those people that they're not bad - it's the new variants that are bad. "They have done really well if they are just getting it now," Wallace said.
In those moments, she tries to avoid mentioning that she herself has not yet tested positive. No need to rub it in.
Tony Freeman feels certain he's going to get knocked out of the game by fall. Freeman, 63, is an actor who has been in the cast of "The Lion King" since it debuted on Broadway more than 20 years ago. In the past five years, he's been a standby, ready to take over if another actor gets sick. Which has been just fine, especially this past year, when he's been able to sit backstage, safely tucked behind a mask. But recently he was asked to take over the role of Timon, the meerkat, for four months on a national tour. The part has him "Hakuna Matata"-ing eight times a week while the unmasked masses cackle and cough and loudly prove to their neighbors that they know all the lyrics. (Bunch of hyenas.)
It means no worries. . . ? Nah, not anymore. Freeman no longer likes his odds of getting through the rest of the pandemic unscathed. "I don't think there's anything special about my body," he said. "If you saw it, you would agree." Cast members test six days a week, and he's just waiting for a second line to appear.
Pessimism is one way of protecting yourself. Everybody is in the game until they're not. And bragging that you've dodged covid for 2 and one-half years seems akin to chanting "Bloody Mary" three times while looking in a mirror. You don't really want to tempt fate. Though maybe you can't help yourself - whatever the consequences.
"As of today, I have finally tested positive for the iconic COVID-19 virus," Luke Martin - he of the "strikeouts" - announced in an email to The Washington Post shortly after boasting about not having caught it yet.
Reached by phone, Martin said he wasn't sure where he picked up the virus, but he has a theory on why it came for him now. He hasn't done a strikeout in two weeks - ironically, he was trying to be healthier.
On Day One of his diagnosis, Martin reported feeling mostly okay, just a little tired and a lot disappointed.
"I made it loud and clear to all my circles that I hadn't gotten it," he said. "Now, the king has fallen."
Last week, Joe Altman of Las Vegas took a calculated risk and competed at the World Series of Poker. He survived round after round, finally finishing 31st out of almost 8,700 players. He wasn't the last one standing, but still - not a bad run.
Then three days after he busted out of the tournament, he busted out with a little dry cough. Susannah made him take a coronavirus test; the second line was faint but visible. Her own case was confirmed three days later.
"We're out of the Last Longer," Susannah said by phone. She wasn't surprised. That's just how the game goes.