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Is it COVID… or just ‘coronaphobia’? In a pandemic, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re sick

With new variants surging and cases high, our brains jump to the worst-case scenario.

Lauren Doty Brown poses for a portrait with her cat Timothy at her home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, MA on Feb. 11.  Lauren's parents were both hospitalized with COVID-19, so when she had a persistent fever she was sure she had it too. After nearly a month of testing, it turned out to be a sinus infection kicked off by an allergy to her new cat, Timothy.
Lauren Doty Brown poses for a portrait with her cat Timothy at her home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, MA on Feb. 11. Lauren's parents were both hospitalized with COVID-19, so when she had a persistent fever she was sure she had it too. After nearly a month of testing, it turned out to be a sinus infection kicked off by an allergy to her new cat, Timothy.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The gray tabby arrived in late 2020, after a long campaign by Lauren Doty Brown’s family. “It was becoming increasingly cruel not to say ‘yes,’” she said. “He’s our pandemic kitten.”

And then some.

Timothy set off allergies, which — unbeknownst to Brown — triggered a sinus infection, which caused a fever that wouldn’t go away, which led to a COVID panic, because in today’s world, what else could it be?

Brown spent January getting COVID tests every ten days or so; intermittently isolating from her spouse and stepdaughter in their 900-square-foot Jamaica Plain apartment; and, of course, playing the very un-fun game of COVID Calendar.

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That’s when you frantically try to remember everywhere you’ve been over the last two weeks, and even more painfully, imagine yourself calling anyone you might have infected.

Did I use the restroom on the Pike 14 days ago, or 15? Why didn’t I stay farther from that sickly looking woman in produce? I couldn’t wait one minute to grab kale which will just rot anyway? OMG, I’m going to have to call the day-care center, the dentist’s office, my boss ...

So who can blame Brown — or the rest of us — for panicking, especially now? The vaccines are here, true, but the vast majority of us are still waiting for our shots.

In the meantime, extra-contagious and possibly deadlier variants are moving in. The list of possible COVID symptoms keeps growing. A rash. Light sensitivity. COVID tongue. There’s not much flu around to explain random aches and fatigue. And nearly a quarter of Americans who said they wanted to get tested couldn’t, according to a survey from STAT and The Harris Poll.

A recent paper examining “coronaphobia” described it as “an excessive triggered response of fear of contracting the virus causing COVID-19, leading to accompanied excessive concern over physiological symptoms … causing marked impairment in daily life functioning.”

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But with the consequences so serious — and so many people actually correct when they worry they are infected — is it a phobia? Or a rational response?

Brown, a fund-raiser with Fenway Health — whose parents were hospitalized last spring with COVID — figured she was unlucky on a recent trip to Whole Foods or the hardware store.

A doctor, however, cast blame on Timothy.

“I got a Z-Pak” — antibiotics — ”and I was fine in three days,” she said. “It’s so deeply embarrassing.”

A year into the pandemic, people think they should have stopped jumping at every sniffle. But mounting infections and the rising death toll have everyone on high alert.

“I’ve done way too much Googling,” said Ellen Doiron, of Shirley. “You read an article and it lists 68 symptoms. Both high and low blood pressure. Congestion. Sore throat. Ear ache. Anything at all short of a hangnail and it could be COVID.”

A few days after arriving in Florida this winter — a trip she and her husband made by car, with only quick, double-masked take-out and restroom stops — Doiron developed a blistering headache.

“It’s frightening,” she said. “I’m 62, which is not quite a danger zone, but you are pointing in that direction. I know people who’ve had it and been very sick.”

Isolating in one of the condo’s bedrooms, taking aspirin and DayQuil, yelling to her husband to vacate the area when she wanted to use the kitchen, she Googled again. This time, “COVID testing near me.”

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There was a clinic only 1.3 miles away, but it was a long drive. “I was planning my own wake,” she said.

But the test came back negative. Relieved, she decided to go out, and promptly put on the stiff headband she’d started wearing when she got to Florida to keep her pandemic hair out of her face.

The headache pressure began building again. “I think I just spent $180 [on a COVID test] because of a [expletive] headband,” she said.

Alleged COVID symptoms often appear out of nowhere. But Rich Manley knew where he got “infected.” It was at his mother’s funeral, in Quincy. Many of the mourners were big huggers, and two were recovering from COVID, and, Manley feared, still infectious.

“They all loved my mom and were grieving for her as much as I was,” said Manley, “so I figured it would be best if I went along with it and tried to stay 6 feet away.”

But a few days later, intense gastrointestinal symptoms arrived. Diabetic, 66, slightly overweight, a prior smoker, and a part-time worker at an assisted living facility who had yet to be vaccinated, he feared the worst.

“It’s just me, by myself,” he said. “I don’t have anyone to look after me, so if I got sick I didn’t know what I would do,” he said. “I was very scared.”

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Waiting for his test results, he imagined with sorrow breaking the news to his children and grandchildren — calls he didn’t have to make when he tested negative.

“I finally put two and two together and realized it was store-bought meatloaf I had for dinner the night before,” he said. “But your mind goes right to COVID.”



Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.