The phone call comes in the early afternoon, about six hours after the mandatory morning test. The number is instantly recognizable because it is so strange: an American telephone area code while the Chinese health official on the line is actually calling from Beijing and bringing bad news.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said.
“Your test this morning was positive.”
Like washing with gasoline or walking naked, traveling three weeks after a bout of COVID-19 to cover the Winter Olympics in China for The Associated Press turns out not to have been the brightest of ideas. Because here, the coronavirus is Public Enemy No. 1 – hunted, tracked, isolated and zapped with no-frills rigor and militaristic zeal.
Deep in my throat lurk infinitesimal remnants of viral DNA that latched on for the ride, and which Olympic testers in head-to-toe hazmat suits are annoying to dig up with their cotton swabs.
“Say ‘Ahhh'”, they say.
And that’s how I ended up here, in isolation ward 2. For the second time in four days.
The cabin, part of a cluster of nondescript Lego-like prefabs outside the main Olympic press centre, is about the size of a double bed but less welcoming.
There is a small electric heater to attenuate the cold that seeps through the thin white metal walls. I turn it on.
There is a table and a chair. I place them next to the electrical outlet so I can power my laptop and stay connected via Wi-Fi to the Olympic world that I can see, but temporarily no longer welcome, through two slots in the door.
A few passers-by wave. Most don’t even notice the person inside, confined until the result of another test determines their fate.
A positive could mean a quick transfer by ambulance to an isolation ‘hotel’ for an indefinite stay. It’s an unappetizing prospect given complaints about the lack of comfort and inedible food from the quarantined athletes who have endured them. There were 32 athletes in isolation as of Tuesday this week, with 50 others having been released.
The ambulance is parked outside the cabin, ready to go.
So all fingers and toes are crossed for a negative that would trigger a return to relative freedom from the “closed loop”. This tricky moniker is actually a fence of tight restrictions sealing the Winter Games – behind high walls, police patrols and thickets of security cameras – from the rest of China and its people who understandably want that potential virus carriers are kept firmly at bay.
In France, where I am based, the coronavirus no longer inspires the same level of fear in many as it did at the start of the pandemic. The vast majority of French adults are vaccinated. There have been several waves, the most recent being the fast-spreading omicron variant. It has swept through so many homes that more and more people feel the worst may be behind them. Even the kiss on both cheeks, the traditional French greeting that had become repulsive to many, has made a comeback of sorts. France has lost more than 133,000 lives to the virus and has had more than 20 million infections.
Vaccination rates are also high in China. But the ruling Communist Party has pursued a “zero tolerance” strategy to keep COVID-19 infections low since cases overwhelmed hospitals in the pandemic’s initial epicenter, the Chinese city of Wuhan. This means that most people in China have never been exposed to the virus. And they don’t want Olympic visitors to endanger them.
Briefly taking my masked face out of the booth, I ask a passing policeman if he’d like to take a picture of me inside. He backs up when he sees the blue sign marked “Isolation Room 2” near the door. Stupid of me, really. The words spoken that morning by Dr. Brian McCloskey, who leads an Olympic panel of medical experts overseeing the games’ COVID-19 protocols, should have given me pause.
“We never relax on coronavirus,” he told a news conference.
Only his eyes visible in a full protective suit, a tester enters the cabin to take a mouth swab. She spreads a yellow plastic bag on the floor. Swab taken, she inserts the cotton swab with my sample into a tube for further testing. The sealed tube goes in a sealed plastic bag marked “BIOHAZARD”. The bag goes in a plastic screw cap box. It then goes into a dual squeeze cooler.
Foreign remnants of the swab stick and the packaging it came in go in the yellow bag. She sprays it 16 times with disinfectant and crumples it into a tight ball that she seals with a plastic twist tie. It then goes into another plastic bag, also sprayed, eight times, which she compresses and reties.
At the Beijing Olympics, the key to freedom is a number: 35. This is the positive-negative threshold of the organizers. The number is a measure of how precisely their testing machines have to zero in on a sample before detecting virus particles. A reading below 35 triggers a positive result, requiring quarantine in an isolation facility.
Since landing, I’ve yo-yoed above and below the redline, negative in some tests, positive in others, and at least once just “uncertain”. Hence the two passages in the isolation room and others in my hotel room, awaiting the results of the follow-ups.
I am far from alone. As of day 5, there have been over a million tests and 398 confirmed positives.
McCloskey says the medical literature has documented cases of people testing positive up to 109 days after an infection. The work of its medical panel is to distinguish these cases from newly infected people who are likely to infect others. They review their testing patterns over days or weeks, to determine whether mouth swabs have just picked up dead remnants of virus from a previous infection or have spotted a new active case.
My phone rings again. The test manager with the strange number is online.
Negative, he said. Free to go.
He saved the best news for last.
To cheer me up after my first few days of self-isolation, he had called my hotel to ask if it would be possible to cook me a special dinner.
Spicy pork with green onions and meatballs, he announced proudly. I had told her before, when we had a mutual complaint about the food at the Olympics, that it was my favorite Chinese food.
They were delivered to my room that night. The man was wearing a protective suit and a visor. But my faith in humanity has been restored.
More from AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-games and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports