The Deep Shame of Telling Your Friends You Probably Gave Them COVID

With public health departments struggling to keep up with testing, individuals have been left to do their own amateur contact tracing. And it’s getting awkward.

When Noah, a 34-year-old pharma rep in New York City, initially became sick after attending a wedding the first weekend in March — which also happened to be the first COVID-19 crisis here in the states — he laid low. But within a few days, he developed a high fever, chest pains and extreme aches. Not surprisingly, he tested positive for coronavirus on March 14th. He immediately called the groom to tell him the unfortunate news, as well as individuals he was in close contact with at the event. Next, he did the same with the 50-plus clients he saw for work over that time.

As much as Noah was battling to restore his health through all of this, the real struggle was managing other people’s feelings. Wedding guests scolded him for not telling them sooner. Neighbors cornered him in the hallway to ask if he knew who was sick in the building (he had alerted his landlord, who had, in turn, alerted the building’s tenants that someone on the premises had tested positive). Most memorably, the mother of a former college athlete Noah knew from working in broadcasting as a side gig tracked him down on social media to interrogate him since she’d heard he was sick and may have been in the locker room with her son’s roommates.  

“Her son quit the team over a year ago, and I was nowhere near his roommates,” Noah laughs, adding that the wedding guest who flipped out the most also tested negative shortly thereafter. “The people who acted the craziest had the least amount of reason to.”

While alerting people who may have been exposed is technically the responsibility of a state’s Health Department, contact tracing has proven to be a challenge for many of them — so much so that people like Noah are taking matters into their own hands. More staff and resources could definitely solve some of this problem, but given some of the reactions Noah received, it seems many would rather be dishonest than deal with the social consequences of telling others they may have exposed them to coronavirus. 

“If people aren’t practicing good behaviors, they’re reluctant to be honest about who they’ve been in contact with,” explains Audrey Snyder, associate dean for experiential learning at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s School of Nursing

It’s not dissimilar from the social stigma and shame that keeps people from disclosing important information about STI transmission. “The official process of contact tracing in the past has frequently been regarding STDs. You can see how that would be a slower process, but more care must be taken to protect the privacy of all involved,” says Leann Poston, physician and contributor at Invigor Medical. “COVID is so widespread that unless a person thinks that someone will hold them personally responsible or treat them badly as a result of the exposure, speed is of the essence.”

Ideally, most people are limiting their contacts at this point — whether they have symptoms or not — so if they get sick, they only have a few people to warn. Along those lines, Snyder suggests writing down every contact in a calendar, so there’s a record — no matter if it’s going to the grocery store, or meeting a neighbor for a backyard beer

For individuals who haven’t been careful, however, this phone tree can quickly become a tangled mess. In these instances, it might change how they communicate the news, opting for a mass text, email or social media post. And while finding out you might have COVID from a friend’s Instagram Story may not be ideal, if it gets the word out faster, it could save lives. 

“If someone has had lots and lots of contacts and they feel like everyone they’ve been around is someone on their Twitter or Instagram account, then maybe that is the best way to let everyone know they may have been exposed,” Snyder says, noting that many millennials avoid answering unknown numbers and listening to voicemails, so texting, social media and other forms of modern communication can help fill in these gaps. 

The one exception is in the workplace, where legally there needs to be a greater emphasis on privacy. At this point, employers should have a system in place where they can track everyone who’s in the office and when, as well as some sort of self-reporting system. From there, the company can send out an email to everyone who was in the building to let them know they may have been exposed, along with information about symptoms, testing and other precautions to take. 

“It’s required by the Americans with Disabilities Act that when employees are told of an exposure to COVID that confidentiality is maintained,” Poston tells me. “In a small workplace it might be challenging to maintain confidentiality, but every effort to do so is the requirement.”

That said, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to manage the reactions people have when they find out they may have come in contact with coronavirus. For instance, when Renee, a 33-year-old nutrition coach, tested positive for COVID the second week in June, she was already following Snyder’s advice and limiting her contacts. As such, she only had to call a total of four people. Two of them, however, didn’t take her warnings seriously and continued to live their lives normally (one even hosted a party without informing her guests of the risks), whereas the other two haven’t spoken to her since. 

“It definitely felt weird to tell people,” Renee says. “I decided to call everyone rather than text, even though I’m more of a texter. But I don’t have any overall advice, because it was so different for each person I told. Some people think this is a deadly virus and I’m contagious for a year while others think it’s no big deal.” 

After Noah fully recovered, he learned that there was at least one other person at the wedding who was infected, potentially the person who got him sick in the first place. “I didn’t know until months later because he kept it kind of secret,” Noah tells me.

Which, of course, might be the worst reaction of all. Because at least in the case of coronavirus, silence is far from golden.