Pandemic Musings Chapter 8: OMICRON and Christmas Disruptions (updated 31 December 2021)

How can the personal story keep changing? The tiresomeness of cyclical ups and downs with no apparent pattern to them is wearing thin on all of us. Here in France, the delta variant was driving what was described as the fifth wave in this November/December 2021 timeframe, while the US or even the UK were measuring it as a fourth wave. Our personal relationship to the pandemic, nonetheless, was settling down to a gradual phasing out of COVID-related restraints, especially when we both got our boosters for extra-certain protection. But then the omicron variant suddenly burst onto the global scene. And even more disrupting for us personally, our long-awaited visit from our son and his fiancée was turned upside down by his  testing positive for COVID  shortly after his arrival here – and the rest of us only days later! Instead of spending an early Christmas with them and sending them home to Richmond for the main event, we were all in mandatory isolation through the holiday right here at Villa Ndio.

Before the shocker of COVID hitting home struck us in a very personal way, we had gone through the latest cycle of moving away from anxiety and towards complacency, even with the threat of the delta variant. The French authorities had mobilized a heightened vaccination campaign, with boosters, to combat the onslaught of this delta variant.  The growing realization that this particular pandemic won’t end with a return to life before the crisis was part of the new daily routine, but it did seem that the vaccination cycle and related development of new protective and therapeutic tools were making it all seem quite manageable. Maybe there would be a regularized form of COVID management, like the influenza cycle of vaccines every year? We were warned by the experts, nonetheless, of the likelihood of new variants popping up because of the failure of political will to share vaccines equitably around the world.  But it all seemed to be going in the right direction.

The Brief Return to Complacency

In the last chapter of these Pandemic Musings, I had described a similar cycle of complacency and anxiety and back to complacency as we embarked on our first trans-Atlantic visit to the States in August and early September.  We had booked our travel comfortably beyond the anticipated June 1 opening up of trans-Atlantic travel in both directions, to allow for some likely slippage in the date. We, as Americans, were certainly free to travel to the States by July, in any case, and the Europeans had opened up its borders to American tourists by then, as well.  Unfortunately, the Biden Administration balked at opening up European travel to the States, not taking steps in that direction until November, long past our summertime visit. But as Americans, we went ahead with the August booking, albeit with some trepidation about the mixed news we were getting about trends. The trip was our first adventure in masked travel that went unusually well. And a combination of masked and eventually mostly unmasked family activities in Virginia also went well, somewhat isolated from any of the alarming trends..

Back in France in September, there were continuing concerns about the delta variant, but things started returning to some form of normal. For example, I did return to my weekly in-person teaching of “American” English in Peymeinade.  We were under orders to wear masks in the classroom but  mostly paid close attention to social distancing. I became eligible for the booster in early October, and shortly thereafter,  I did have a second trip to the States with a higher degree of comfort that I was protected against the virus than on my first trip. In the US, I sensed a significant slacking of COVID-related practices but also an eagerness to move beyond the limitations. People are (were) eager to start international travel plans again, but lots of other people were organizing protests against wearing masks, etc. This was true even back in Europe, where governments were taking the fourth/fifth wave quite seriously with new restraining measures.

Looking ahead at that time, we we were all thinking positively about family plans for Christmas (our son’s return trip to France, for the first time with his fiancée) and for April of next year (the arrival of a second grandchild, due on the 4th, and our son’s wedding on the 23rd., both in Richmond). And beyond that, we also gained support from family and friends for a Doggett siblings’ reunion at Villa Ndio in July and a White House Fellows class reunion in September, also at Villa Ndio.  Supposedly, we started thinking, all these gatherings would happen as if the pandemic is no longer with us, even if COVID-19 doesn’t disappear but just becomes “endemic”.  And thus, we eased into yet another false sense of complacency

OMICRON’s Sudden Appearance

Suddenly, however, the omicron variant complicated the cyclical pattern – or non-pattern, as it were, of travel and other safety precautions. The news about its appearance in South Africa overwhelmed the mainstream media the day after Thanksgiving.  There were, to be sure, continuing concerns about the delta variant even before this new variant had been identified, but it was easy to think that full vaccination coverage, reinforced with boosters, should be enough to protect us, at least among comparably vaccinated individuals.  And the vaccination rates in France were well ahead of almost any other country. So we looked forward to inviting our friends and neighbors to a full-blown traditional Thanksgiving feast.

We had an 11.4 kilo turkey, specially ordered with the butcher at a nearby grocery store.  We expected a party of some 14 adults and 3 children. Two families of three dropped out at the last minute, and we ended up with a table of 11 (10 adults and one child) instead of 17.  The full traditional menu was produced – the roast turkey with stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, marshmellow-covered sweet potatoes, the green-bean casserole with French-fried onion rings,, corn muffins and three pies for dessert – pumpkin, blueberry and apple! We had missed doing this at Villa Ndio in 2019 (when we were in London for Thanksgiving) and 2020 (the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic).  It was like old times past!  And it was a pleasure to share this American tradition with our French friends once again.

Immediately after the Thanksgiving party, our focus shifted to a similar pleasure from years past – bringing out all of the Christmas holiday decor and churning out the home-baked Christmas cookies in abundance – all oriented in this case, to the visit of our son PJ (i.e. Ralph, Junior) and his fiancée Sarah. Two and even three years ago, we had been in the States for Christmas, and last year, we were here at Villa Ndio all by ourselves.  So it was fun to pick out a large Christmas tree again, set it up in our veranda and decorate it – and the house! All the Santas and creches came out and were joined by a veritable forest of festive poinsettias! We knew it would be a short visit with our son – and earlier than either of the holiday weekends this year. But we were ready to celebrate all the usual traditions early.

Our son arrived in Nice on a Sunday morning with his fiancée on one of the typical overnight flights to Europe from the States, this time passing through Heathrow Airport in London. Both had done their antigen test prior to their departure from Richmond, Virginia, and their travels went smoothly with all appropriate safeguards – masking, social distancing, regular hand-washing, etc. On our first evening together, we decorated the gingerbread cookies with gusto. PJ won the “award” for the best gingerbread cookie, converting a teddy-bear into an Easter bunny.  – and we consumed them along with the butterballs, sandies and sandbakkels after inaugurating our newly renovated dining room with their presence as the first guests to dine with us in that room!

The Pandemic Shocker Number One

On Monday, our son woke up with a headache and sore throat, minor travel-related adjustments to a new setting but not so debilitating as to prevent him (and us, of course) from showing our future daughter-in-law the sites of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.  On Tuesday, too, we continued with planned outings to my American English class in Peymeinade, a trip up to Cabris to take in the view and a lunch and Christmas market by the sea in Cannes.  We were all in good spirits for a full week’s agenda of Riviera sites and Christmas markets to visit before their departure very early in the morning on the following Sunday.

On the third day, however, our son still had the symptoms and expressed the need to just make sure, as a precautionary measure, that they weren’t COVID-related. We accompanied him to a nearby pharmacy that was conducting antigen tests. The shocker was a positive result on the test! The pharmacist who did the test then directed us all to go to Pégomas, several kilometers down the road, where there was a full-day service for conducting the more accurate and officially recognized PCR test.

As we all know by now, an antigen test’s results are available within 15 minutes, but the PCR test takes longer. So it wasn’t until late evening that a positive PCR test was confirmed for our son. The rest of us were negative, but the initial crisis was PJ! He had already been wearing his mask indoors but supplemented that with more drastic self-isolating measures at home. Fortunately, we could do that relatively easily, closing himself off in his own bedroom with direct and isolated access to his own bathroom.  Sarah was moved into another bedroom and bathroom arrangement. But our focus shifted from further sightseeing to one of adjusting to his no longer being able to return with Sarah on the coming Sunday morning.

Adjusting to Shocker Number One

All of us have been vaccinated, and we all had negative results to the PCR tests that Ralph Senior and Sarah had taken on the same day as our son PJ and that I had taken one day later. But what did this mean for Sarah? The US State Department website and the American Airlines website both seemed to confirm that a negative COVID test was all that she would need to return to the States, even if she had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive. We assumed that she could conceivably return by herself, as scheduled at the end of the week – even though our son would need to wait. But we weren’t sure. Would the French authorities comply with this? The forms for entry into France seemed to require an attestation of no contact with someone who has tested positive, but it was not clear if this was also required by the French for anyone going in the other direction. We concluded that we should proceed as though she could rely on a negative antigen test on Saturday for a Sunday morning departure., without any such additional attestation. That was on Thursday.

Given the importance of the antigen test being within 24 hours of her departure (Saturday for a Sunday departure), and given our negative PCR tests, we went ahead with showing more of the local sites to our guest  – without PJ who had to stay at home in isolation – but also without any worries on account of our all having been fully vaccinated. So off we went on Friday to a lovely day in Nice. We visited the flower and crafts markets, walked the Promenade des Anglais, had moules marinières for lunch, visited the Nice Christmas market and then returned home in time to have an early “Christmas Eve” dinner of roast beef and all the fixings in our newly renovated dining room. PJ, of course, dined by himself in his room. The next day, too, we celebrated with a Christmas Day brunch and gift exchange duly socially isolated from each other this time in the fresh open air of the veranda and courtyard.

Pandemic Shocker Number Two

However, and here is where the biggest shocker came, we did all this brunch and gift exchange on Saturday following a trip to a laboratory in nearby Peymeinade for an antigen test for Sarah, which had alarmingly come back positive. We then rushed to the Pégomas laboratory’s PCR testing site, some distance away but where we could get a PCR test just before noon in hopes that a follow-up PCR test for Sarah would disprove the positive antigen test. Ralph Senior and I also took the PCR tests, just in case.

The rest of the day, including the brunch and gift exchange, occurred without knowing Sarah’s PCR test result status but with the expectation that we could conceivably all have positive test results.  With that in mind, we were still keeping well apart and wearing masks. We were all concerned about the possibility of having COVID, of course. But the day was dominated by the growing realization that Sarah was indeed unlikely to return home on schedule, what with a positive antigen test already on her record.. In anticipation, Sarah and PJ jointly cancelled their return booking for Sunday even before we got the PCR results. Unsurprisingly, we all received news of positive PCR tests before the evening was out.

Even so, we had to ask ourselves, how could it be? We were all vaccinated! We were, other than PJ, all negative earlier in the week! What happened so quickly and so irrationally? How could this possibly happen? Our symptoms, such as they were, congested noses and sore throats, and fatigue like one might experience with jet lag in any case, were typical of this time of year. And what could it possibly mean for Sarah’s return, preferably before Christmas if only we could figure out a way to get her cleared for departure? And of course, this being a Saturday night in France and no professional consultations available until Monday at the earliest, what could we possibly do but postpone any specific  reticketing for either PJ or Sarah? With all of us in shock, we went into complete isolation through the weekend – and beyond!

Living with the Aftermath of Both Shocks

The medical consultation with Dr. Remy, our primary care physician, finally did happen on Tuesday morning. It took the full day of Monday to penetrate the demands on the overworked telephone operator at the doctor’s office to get an appointment. It seems that this holiday period had stirred up a lot of crisis management regarding the pandemic. None of us had any alarming symptoms, of course, although there were some COVID-related symptoms of coughing, fatigue, headaches, etc. PJ’s symptoms seemed to be on the recovery track, while Sarah’s symptoms were mild. Ralph Senior had more serious head and throat symptoms and spent the day Monday in bed but seemed to be improving on Tuesday. I myself had sensed some symptoms early on (e.g., an unusually dry mouth) but had concluded that I had none to speak of by the time Tuesday morning arrived.

And what did we learn from Dr. Remy?  It didn’t seem to matter that we had all been vaccinated. Whether it was the omicron variant or something else, the vaccines, he said,  could only reduce the severity of the virus, not keep it away. He confirmed that we all had to undergo the mandatory ten-day isolation as laid out by the French authorities. And to be freed from this mandatory isolation, including any travel back to the States, one must have either a negative screening test or a certificate that one has fully recovered from COVID-19. The negative test was out of the question for either PJ or Sarah – or for either Ralph Senior or me, for that matter. As we had learned in our own research of COVID information and confirmed by Dr. Remy, anyone who contracts COVID-19 is likely to test positive long after recovery even if no longer contagious. So our primary concern was how to receive a certificate of recovery as quickly as possible.

As for the rules for obtaining such a certificate, we were informed by  Dr. Remy that he himself was not authorized to issue the certificate. Instead, he explained, the only way available for a health certification that someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 could be deemed fully recovered was from the laboratory that processed the initial positive PCR test – on the 11th day after the positive test.   For PJ, this would have been on Sunday, 26 December (forget that – he waited til Monday), and for Sarah it would be on Wednesday, 29 December.  Until these dates, we were all obliged to self-isolate at home. Thus, the initial shock of not getting Sarah home on Sunday, the 19th was aggravated by the confirmation from Dr. Remy that it would not be until well after Christmas.

Dr. Remy also gave us prescriptions for controlling the symptoms we might be experiencing – clearing the nose and throat, painkillers, cold medicines. He also gave us prescriptions for home-administered antigen tests, which we had hoped we could use to monitor our own signs of recovery, although he confirmed that we were unlikely to find any available at any pharmacy in the area. He encouraged us to call around, but the prospects, he said, were very poor, especially just before Christmas. We had already had a neighbor friend searching for them on Monday with no luck, and the two pharmacies that I visited on Saturday and Tuesday simply refused to take any orders. Although they weren’t likely to help with any actual negative results, given that we all had COVID, it certainly would have been nice to have some kind of independent confirmation that we were indeed fully recovered.

Repeating the Christmas Cycle

All touring of local attractions was cancelled. We wished we could have done more to alleviate the disappointment of it all, especially for Sarah. Ralph Senior and I were, after all, in our own home, and PJ, too, had his memories here, but Sarah has the extra disappointment of being stranded from all that is familiar – in a strange home and in a strange country, too! We were all fortunate to have minor symptoms – thanks to the triple vaccination status of the two elders among us and the double vaccination status of PJ and Sarah. Imagine what it would have been like without the vaccinations!

Going forward, we are well stocked up on food for the duration, with an order from our preferred grocery store having been delivered to our door for the first time ever on Monday evening!  (It seems that this pandemic has changed a lot of services. We had used a drive-in arrangement in the past to pick up groceries without having to enter a store, but home deliveries were not an option until recently.)

We settled into a rotation of dinner menus. We had already gone through the usual mainstays of the Hagen/Doggett kitchen – spaghetti bolo, veggie chili, pasta carbonara, turkey tetrazzini, and even a traditional roast beef dinner on our “pretend” Christmas Eve and a traditional Christmas Day brunch on the “pretend” Christmas Day. We threw together a couple of other mainstays – Peppy’s “alligator hearts” (aka chicken roasted with garlic, parmesan cheese and estragon) and also Kathy’s Swedish (actually Norwegian) meatballs plus the typical stock of Italian pizza or Asian spring rolls from the freezer, while Sarah pitched in with her popular pasta primavera, and PJ prepared both a nicely marinated chicken stir-fry and, at the end, a glorious stir-fried rice with all the leftovers in it!  And of course, we repeated the traditional roast beef dinner on the real  Christmas Eve (this time with the Boddy brussels sprouts) and the Christmas Day brunch. At least we still had each other in good health!

As for our mental health, we quickly went through the entertainment options of Christmas-related films and other attractions of interest – quite a number of new releases on Hulu and Amazon!  We had books to read, games and puzzles to choose from and more gingerbread cookies to bake and decorate. There were family photo albums to look through and an attic (grenier) full of PJ’s things to sort through. A big plus was the balmy weather and late afternoon sunsets for poolside relaxation over a bottle of wine and a bit of fresh air. And we stretched the rules a bit on one of the last official days in isolation to drive over to the other side of Grasse and take a look at the famed “villages perchés” nearby.  Gourdon was alas in fog. but Tourette-sur-Loup and Le Bar-sur-Loup were picture-perfect for viewing from afar.

Homeward Bound

Having made it through Christmas and even through Boxing Day, we moved into gear for getting those crazy “certificates of recovery” – one for PJ as of that Monday, whose mandatory isolation period had already come to an end,  and lining things up for Sarah as of Wednesday. when her mandatory isolation period would be completed. Their flight had been rebooked for Thursday on the assumption that these certificates would get them through the hurdles.

The question was from whom could we get the appropriate signatures. We had already called both Dr. Remy’s office  and the Pegomas lab before Christmas. Neither was willing to sign. On Monday, then, we drove around and had PJ drop off a hand-written letter for Dr. Remy and a copy of the certificate language from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention for the lab in Pegomas.  The lab said no again, of course, but Dr. Remy’s office had agreed to have him call us before the end of the day.

As a back-up, meanwhile, we then drove to the first pharmacy where PJ had had his first antigen test that started this whole adventure. Sarah had reported through her family connections that an American friend of a French boyfriend near Paris had had the same experience recently and had actually gone around to several pharmacies before getting one to sign her certificate. A pharmacy, we asked? Well, why not – at least starting with the one that PJ had used.  We all waited in the car while PJ went in to the pharmacy – and eventually came back out WITH a SIGNED CERTIFICATE!  And with further assurance that they would sign Sarah’s certificate on Wednesday!

Wednesday was indeed a day for celebration. We started the day with a trip to that pharmacy, whereupon Sarah and PJ both had their required certificates for travel back to the States! And with the certificates basically confirming that they no longer had COVID, we then spent the rest of the day catching up on the shopping that we had been unable to do during our isolation. This included a return to the Fragonard shops and the cobble-stoned pedestrian streets of old-town Grasse, but also, and most importantly, a trip to a specialty jewelry store for PJ and Sarah to select and order their wedding rings!

Finally, then, at 4:40 on Thursday morning, with their bags packed to the hilt, we all piled into the car for the 30-minute drive to the airport.  And off they went, our dear PJ and  Sarah, certificates and passports in hand, some eleven days after their originally planned departure and two sets of Christmas celebrations later (although only one with all the gifts)! Was it omicron that did all this to us?  Or was it delta?  We love our family time together, and the experience has inspired me to write this lengthy chapter. But we hope this pandemic will finally be over, even if it eventually becomes as endemic as the seasonal flu, and that we will all know how to manage any future pandemics with a functioning and comprehensively global strategy.  Happy New Year!

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