You Can Get COVID Even If You Do Everything Right

Crowd of people with masks

Photo: Elisabeth Aardema (Shutterstock)

Cases are climbing exponentially. If you didn’t already know someone who’s had COVID, you will soon. And as a virus becomes more common, it also becomes more likely to infect people who were following precautions.

That’s partly because our safety measures aren’t perfect, but it’s also because this spring and summer didn’t prepare us, emotionally, for the world we’re living in this fall. So here are a few reminders of how you can get the coronavirus even when you’re doing your best to avoid it.

Your bubble is bigger than you think

If you’ve established a bubble with a few family members and close friends, you may think you’re safe to hang out with them indoors and be physically close without a mask. But how can you know those people are actually COVID-free?

In most cases, you don’t. Your bubble isn’t just those people; in a sense, it’s those people plus everyone with whom they’ve interacted closely. (This diagram illustrates the concept perfectly.) Once you start including people from multiple other households, your network of potential COVID-carrying connections expands to dozens or, more likely, hundreds of people.

It’s tempting to think that if you know somebody well, they should be in your bubble. But if somebody has a job where they interact with the public, or if their kid goes to in-person school, or if they sometimes hang out with a friend who isn’t as cautious as they are, there’s a big ol’ hole in that bubble. The number of people who actually have a bubble as safe as they think it is, is vanishingly small.

Rules don’t always protect you

If you’re doing everything “right,” how do you define that? In many cases, we do so by following guidelines: If you returned to gyms, hair salons, restaurants, and your own workplace when they reopened, you probably assumed that the precautions put in place were sufficient to protect people. After all, the people in charge made decisions that were supposed to protect us.

But those rules aren’t always enough to keep us safe. Often, they sacrificed safety in favor of other goals, like allowing businesses to reopen and political pressure on governors and other leaders to ease. A textbook example: the outbreak at an indoor cycling studio that complied with all the rules. The only problem was, the rules allowed people to exercise together in the same enclosed space for an hour at a time, with wearing masks. Of course people got sick.

No safety measure is perfect

Even when you’re vigilant about the size of your bubble, even when the people in charge have instituted reasonable rules, even when you’re doing your best, the coronavirus can still get through.

Another helpful illustration is the Swiss cheese model, where each layer reduces your risk. Distancing isn’t perfect, but it reduces your risk. Masks aren’t perfect, but they reduce your risk. Spending time outside isn’t perfect, but it reduces your risk.

The Swiss cheese model is a good thing: even if one of the layers of intervention is missing, the others can still protect you. Stacking precautions together protects you further, just like how you wear your seatbelt and keep your car’s brakes in working order and drive carefully.

But it also means that there’s no guarantee. Even with all the layers stacked together, each only reduces your risk; none totally eliminate it. You can do absolutely everything “right,” and still a few virus particles make their way through.

The numbers in your community matter more than any specific action you take

Because no precaution is perfect, it matters what’s going on around you. If it’s February and there’s only one person in your town who is COVID-positive, you’re unlikely to get the coronavirus with few or small precautions. Once there are a few dozen cases, the precautions become more important.

By the time the virus is running rampant in your area, it’s more likely to be able to overrun your precautions. Think about crafting with glitter: If you only bring out the glitter for a few minutes for one final touch on your project, you may be able to keep it contained, and you can vacuum up the stray bits you missed. But if your child went on a field trip to a glitter factory and swam in the stuff, there will be glitter in your sock drawer the next day, even if you do everything possible, starting with hosing her off before she comes into the house.

If you live in a place that was hard hit by the coronavirus, you’re probably familiar with this concept. But if you don’t personally know anybody who got COVID until recently, you basically taught yourself over the course of eight months that whatever precautions you’re taking were good enough. As cases rise, the balance of the risk/benefit equation shifts. And yes, you can get the coronavirus now even if you are following the precautions just as well as you did before.

Ultimately, this means that some people who followed every possible precaution will still get COVID-19. So will some people who did their best, but slipped up here and there—or who couldn’t avoid certain risks, like going to work. There’s no need for shame or stigma to follow a diagnosis, since that makes it harder for us to talk honestly with each other about it. Follow the precautions you can, and try not to see positive cases as personal failings. Sometimes we really are trying our best.

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