The pandemic felt so far away out here. My husband and I live eight miles south of Glen Rose—the nearest town of any size—barely over the Somervell-Bosque county line. Our house sits a mile and a half off Texas Highway 144, past two ranch gates and cattle guards, and at the end of a winding, up-and-down gravel road that leads to a ridgetop. There are no other houses in sight, just a wide western view of layered blue mesas.
Back in the spring, when the state was under stay-at-home orders, I was grateful to live in such remoteness and with so much space. Sheltering in place was easy here. I felt safe and content.
Then, in late October, the mountain cedar began blooming. A cold front blew in, sending swirls of pollen into the air. I started sneezing and developed a postnasal irritation in the back of my throat. Just seasonal allergies, I told myself.
The next day, the sinuses in my forehead and behind my cheeks throbbed. I developed a dull headache. I felt odd and took my temperature: 99.2 degrees. Just a mild sinus infection, I told myself.
Then I lost my senses of smell and taste. It wasn’t gradual. They just disappeared overnight. That concerned me: I’d read news articles mentioning COVID-19 patients who reported losing smell or taste or both. But that wasn’t unusual for me. Sometimes when I get a seasonal sinus infection, I get so congested that I can’t smell or taste for a day or two. But two days of that turned to three, then four.
I thought it was unlikely I had COVID-19. I rationalized that the number of cases in our area was relatively low at the time—a little over 200 Bosque County residents had tested positive, and only 250 in Somervell County had. (Bosque County has 18,685 residents, and Somervell County has 9,128.) I always wore a mask when I had to do anything in town, but I didn’t worry about catching the virus like my friends in Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston, Fort Worth, and Dallas did. I viewed our place as a sanctuary. Perhaps it gave me a false sense of security.
But then a friend in Glen Rose was diagnosed with COVID-19. The week before, she and I had celebrated my birthday at a restaurant outside in Granbury. I’d also gone to the local post office and to the courthouse in Meridian, the Bosque County seat, to vote early. I wore a mask and vinyl gloves because hand sanitizer irritates my skin. My husband and I had picked up our groceries using curbside delivery.
After a week of symptoms, on Thursday, October 29, I decided to get tested. I didn’t want to put my husband or my in-laws, who are in their late eighties and live down the road, at risk. I went to the nearest hospital, Glen Rose Medical Center, which has set up a “sick clinic” where the testing takes place.
Later that afternoon, my cellphone rang. It was the nurse who had tested me. She sounded cheery, so at first I felt relieved. Then she told me I had tested positive.
I was shocked and felt shaky. I wanted to cry, but that would make me even more congested. I fought back tears. Because I had mild symptoms, the clinic didn’t prescribe any medications; I was told to keep taking the over-the-counter sinus and headache meds I’d been using.
“Call us if you have any breathing problems,” the nurse said. That prospect, of feeling like an elephant was sitting on my chest—or even being intubated in a hospital—scared me. I slept with the light on that night, worrying.
My first week of COVID-19, the virus affected mainly my head. Besides congestion, I had a weird metallic taste in my mouth and tingling around my lips. I still couldn’t smell or taste anything, not even Texas barbecue (I tried). I had no desire to eat and lost six pounds. I experienced fatigue and chills. At least I could breathe fine.
After almost two weeks, I thought I was getting better. I could taste again, and my husband, who has tested negative, brought me some takeout barbecue. Brisket, coleslaw, and fried okra never tasted so good to me. I declared victory over the virus on my Facebook page.
The next day, though, I felt weak and sick again. The symptoms had moved from my nose and throat to my gut. I felt nauseated and had terrible heartburn and diarrhea for several days. I kept warning people to wear masks and be extra careful.
I’ve left the house only twice—never leaving my car—to drive around town to see if people were social distancing and wearing masks. That last weekend of October, I passed by groups standing close together in front of a church getting ready for its annual fall festival. Parents held the hands of their children, clad in Halloween costumes. Tourists visited the shops around the downtown square. Very few wore masks. I wanted to roll down my car window and shout, “Hey, I have COVID! It’s here. Put on your dadgum masks!” But I didn’t.
Local businesses post signs on their doors stating that masks are required, but they don’t enforce the rule. Before I got sick and quarantined, I regularly saw people in the grocery store or hardware store not wearing masks. No one said anything to them.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in the United States have surpassed 10 million total and 120,000 new infections a day. Texas has racked up more positive cases than any state—more than a million now.
I follow the weekly COVID-19 reports posted by the health authorities in Bosque and Somervell counties. Cases have been going up sharply, especially in conservative Somervell, where some people view wearing masks as a political statement.
As of November 6, Somervell County reported 285 total confirmed COVID-19 cases, with a record high of 35 active cases for the week, and three county residents had died from the disease. Dr. Steven Vacek, the local health authority, wrote that there is “very strong evidence” that social gatherings are contributing to the spread. He noted that mask-wearing in the county seems to be at its lowest level since the beginning of the pandemic.
Whether because of COVID-19 fatigue or denial, many people are letting their guard down. I let mine down by having lunch with a friend because I thought it was “safe” to eat outside. I went in and out of businesses where others weren’t following mask guidelines. There’s no way to tell exactly where or how I got infected.
With cold weather coming and more people confined indoors this fall and winter, COVID-19 cases likely will continue increasing, experts warn. I hear so many people dismissing those warnings. They think it can’t happen here. But it’s already happening.
There is no “safe” place—no sanctuary—anymore. Not even out here in the middle of nowhere.
Read more from Notes on a Pandemic:
With Salons Closed, an 89-Year-Old Houston Woman Washes Her Own Hair for the First Time in Decades
He Hoped Sheltering in Place Would Save His Marriage. Instead It Led to Divorce.
A Prepper Community Near Terlingua Is Ready for Just About Anything