opinion

"I joked about the amount of venues visited by 'super spreaders'. Until I got a message from NSW Health."

"Crikey they get around," one person says.

"Whoa, I haven’t been to that many places in the last 12 months..." another follows. 

"Seriously. Do people walk out of hotel quarantine and go 'Yay I’m free, let’s see just how many public venues I can visit in the coming days?'" a third chimes.

These are the polite comments that inevitably pop up every time there is an alert for a COVID case in an area. I will be honest, before I was caught up in a track and trace situation, I had been joking with friends that "I simply didn’t have the lifestyle to catch COVID." I hadn’t been anywhere apart from work, home and grocery shopping in months. Well. At least that was how it felt. 

When I got a message from NSW Health at 8pm on New Year’s Eve it stopped me in my tracks. The message read: 

"This is a message from NSW Health. A person who attended place X on 19/12/2020 has tested positive for COVID-19 and you may have been exposed. Please get tested immediately and self-isolate until further instruction from NSW Health. … You must remain isolate until NSW Health contacts you, even if your test is negative…"

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This threw into chaos our New Year’s Eve plans. We had friends over for dinner (within the guidelines) and were about to sit down to eat as the messages pinged on our phones. We quickly packed up dinner for our friends to take with them and two families headed off to the local testing place that was open until 10pm that night. They went to their home and we went to ours to eat our dinner and celebrate the end of 2020 alone. 

Over the next couple of days I had little else to do while waiting for the test results to come back and to be released from isolation, so I spent the time wisely, compiling a list of where I had been just in case. I genuinely thought it would be a very short list. I have no social life and well I don’t go anywhere except work so it couldn’t be anymore than maybe two places per day. Less even. 

The problem with this maths is that by the time we were contacted, it was 10 days after our exposure. Even by my conservative count of two places per day, I was up to 20. I had no real way of checking all the places I had checked into because even though I use the Service NSW app everywhere I go (cafes, restaurants) places like shopping centres were optional. Had I checked in every time? Or had I become lazy? 

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So I turned to my bank statement. This, however, was even less comforting. Apart from seeing just how much money had been purged from my bank account in 10 days I was quickly surpassing my conservative 20 location estimate. By the time I went through the bank statement I was up to 50 places I had spent money at. On Christmas Eve I had been to 10 shops in two hours alone.

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When I added up it all up and got to 50, I started to hear all the comments. All of a sudden I was ‘that’ person. I had been absolutely everywhere. I could see my list of venues scrolling on the TV screens like a train timetable. I could hear the comments now: "why couldn’t she just stay home!" Then when I thought about all the people that I could have come into contact with when I was potentially infectious, I really felt ill. 

That is the thing, I really did for the most part stay home. It was a combination of work, groceries and last minute Christmas shopping that I hadn’t been able to get because I had been working so much. 

My list of 50 venues gave me a small glimpse into the enormous task that contact tracers face each and every day. It also gave me a newfound sympathy for people who happened to catch the virus, and head those comments my friends and I had joked about. 

COVID-19 is this insidious, invisible enemy that none of us can see or even feel. No-one would put another person in danger on purpose. I have to believe that, because I know I certainly didn’t. And yet I had unknowingly put so many people potentially in danger of COVID-19 exposure.

We have certainly changed almost overnight the behaviours of anyone who has a cold-like symptoms and people will now stay at home until they are not displaying symptoms. We have changed our behaviours in so many ways and the carefree lives we all lived are possibly gone forever. 

I guess I am asking we cut people some slack when you see a long list of venues. We have no idea why they have been to all those places. Like the case in Wollongong recently, where an Australian citizen returned from overseas and was clearly tasting fresh-air and re-establishing their life after mandatory quarantine, or the average person who just had a lot of places to be. 

The best protection we have for ourselves and others is to wear a mask. Then, when the vaccine is available, we can get vaccinated. 

Until then, you never know. It could be your list of venues appearing in the NSW Health press release one day. 

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