Robin Cimo hasn’t been sick since the coronavirus pandemic started, despite spending all day in close contact with customers at her Torrance barber shop.
“I’ve never taken my mask off inside my business, which I think plays a huge part,” said Cimo, 62, owner of Anza-Pacific Barber Salon. She’s also fully vaccinated, double boosted and washes her hands frequently.
Yvette Severtson, 49, of Long Beach, has also worked in person throughout the pandemic in the accounting department of a Lexus dealership, and believes that in addition to taking safety measures, an extra-strong immune system helped protect her from COVID-19.
“I think I’m part superhero,” she joked.
At 79 years old, Hubert Evans is still working as a meat cutter at a South Los Angeles Albertsons, and has taken every precaution he could to avoid getting the virus and bringing it home to his wife: getting vaccinated, masking up, washing hands, and exercising and eating right to try to keep his body healthy.
“I guess the good Lord helped me, too,” Evans said. “It’s just a blessing that he took care of me through that time, he kept me safe, so I didn’t catch it.”
As a graphic designer for UC Riverside, Kristen Danforth, 35, has been able to work mostly from her home in Redlands during the pandemic, and credits that isolation for helping her to avoid not just COVID-19, but also the constant colds that used to plague her.
She also chalks a lot of it up to luck. “I keep thinking it’s going to happen!” she said of testing positive.
With the United States in the midst of the second-largest surge of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started, it may feel like the disease is unavoidable. The current dominant variant, a version of Omicron known as BA.5, is incredibly transmissible, and that feeling of inevitability — along with fatigue from the length of the pandemic — may have more people dropping their guard and becoming more likely to get infected for a first (or second, or third) time.
But while the pool of people who have managed not to catch it is shrinking fast, Cimo, Severtson, Evans, Danforth and others remain members of the “never-COVID club.”
Kristen Danforth, 35, a graphic designer at UC Riverside, holds her dog Tonks as she sits in her home office in Redlands on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Danforth has never contracted COVID-19 and has mostly been working from home since the pandemic started. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Robin Cimo, 62, owner of Anza-Pacific Barber Salon, is one in a shrinking population of those who have not contracted COVID-19. She credits this with being vigilant about masking and hand washing, which has protected her so far, in Torrance on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)
Kristen Danforth, 35, a graphic designer at UC Riverside, looks out the window of her home in Redlands on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Danforth has never contracted COVID-19 and has mostly been working from home since the pandemic started. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Kristen Danforth, 35, a graphic designer at UC Riverside, works on her laptop at her home in Redlands on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Danforth has never contracted COVID-19 and has mostly been working from home since the pandemic started. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Have they really never had it?
Membership in that club, however, comes with a huge caveat: They’ve never had COVID-19, as far as they know. Lots of people have cases with symptoms so mild, or nonexistent, that they never realized they were infected.
Steve Carson, 51, a political consultant from Orange County, has tested negative after every known exposure he’s had, but said there has been at least one occasion this year where he was a little under the weather for 12 to 24 hours, not enough to feel the need to get tested.
“So I don’t know if that was COVID or I just caught something else — obviously there’s other stuff going around, too,” he said.
But if it was COVID and the vaccine that helped his body fight it off, “Then I love science even more than I loved it before COVID,” Carson said.
According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the U.S. has had about 90.5 million confirmed cases, or just more than one for every four Americans, but the true number of infections is believed to be significantly higher.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which has been modeling coronavirus trends since the beginning of the pandemic, estimates that as of July 11, 82% of people in the U.S. have been infected at least once.
“There are very few people left in the world who have not gotten COVID yet,” said Davey Smith, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UC San Diego (and not a member of the never-COVID club).
One line of research aims to find people who have been exposed to COVID-19 but never got infected, discover whether there’s some genetic reason why, and then try to replicate that in vaccines or treatment.
“The thing that’s been most interesting, astounding, shocking, is that lots of people who think they haven’t been infected, have,” Smith said.
Special blood tests can tell whether a person has antibodies that came from vaccines, natural infection or both. Smith said he’s tested a couple of hundred people locally who had known exposure and thought they hadn’t been infected. He didn’t find anyone who was correct.
‘A really big dodge’
It would take a lot to avoid the virus, but Smith said it’s still possible.
“People who’ve really been hunkering down, really doing everything possible — I still think there a few people out there who haven’t had it,” Smith said. “It’s a really big dodge, because (the current dominant strain is) super infectious. It’s everywhere in the community.”
Knowing that, and how likely it is that people can be infected without knowing it, Smith strongly recommends taking a precautionary at-home test before visiting anyone who’s elderly, is immunocompromised or has underlying conditions.
While everyone interviewed for this story acknowledged there was some chance they’d had an asymptomatic case, David Govea of San Fernando says he’s “close to 100% positive” that he hasn’t, at least not before this summer.
The 38-year-old charter school teacher worked remotely from March 2020 through August 2021. His wife also had their second baby during that period, so the family was very careful. They got vaccinated as soon as they were eligible, wore masks and avoided big gatherings.
Throughout the 2021-22 in-person school year, Govea said, he was tested weekly. So were his 3-year-old son and wife, as a condition of being in and volunteering at preschool. Preschools being the germ factories that they are, he said, his son has brought home a few colds, but the family’s COVID tests have all been negative.
Worth the sacrifice
Avoiding the coronavirus has required some sacrifice, but it’s been worth it to Tinny Abogado, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. She works in a stepdown unit, where patients go after leaving intensive care.
“I’m doing everything I can to not get it. I know sometimes you can’t help it, but anything that I have control over, I’m doing it,” Abogado said. That included participating in labor actions to make sure she and her colleagues had adequate personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic, she said.
She lost her father to COVID-19 at the end of 2020, just before he was able to get vaccinated, and almost lost her brother as well. At work, she was seeing people die from the disease every day.
“It was really traumitizing,” Abogado said.
Even though fewer people are dying of COVID-19 these days, she’s still fearful of the disease, based on her past experience, plus knowing that she has some health issues and that COVID-19 can cause long-term damage.
“As a nurse, anything that can cost people’s lives, we have to take seriously,” she said.
Weighing the tradeoffs
Frederick Lynch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College who teaches a course on health care policy, pointed out that while deaths are far below the peaks of the two winter surges, in recent weeks the CDC has been reporting almost 400 per day.
Lynch hasn’t had COVID-19 as far as he knows (although he’s suspicious about a mystery ailment that hit him in December 2019), and said he believes that’s because he’s “basically been a hermit.”
“I was just super careful. I avoided a lot of social interaction, particularly in the early days and months when they didn’t know how it spread,” he said.
He knows people who have been far less careful than he has and they haven’t gotten sick, but he isn’t ready to ease up just yet.
“The decision a lot of Americans are thinking about is, how long do you want to put your life on hold? It’s the third summer of COVID. … A lot of people are basically saying, ‘The hell with it.’ I’m not quite there, mainly because of my age.”
Lynch is 76, and noted that the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths have been among people 65 and older.
Brandon Brown, a professor of public health at UC Riverside who studied epidemiology, also said he isn’t ready to start relaxing on the precautions that have kept him illness-free for two-plus years.
“I was thinking I could do this back in May, and perhaps go to eat at a restaurant while sitting outside, but with the new surge that won’t be happening anytime soon,” he wrote in an email.
He noted that before the pandemic, “getting sick was a normal part of our lives. But now with face coverings, people can actually avoid some airborne infections from their close contacts outside the home. I think everyone has to measure the tradeoff of practicing COVID risk mitigation, how that changes their lives, and what life changes they are able and willing to make.”
Leaning toward normal
Cimo is adamant that she won’t be taking off her mask anytime soon. She isn’t doing much besides work, grocery shopping and spending time outside. At her salon, she’s still asking customers not to come if they’re feeling sick, but she has made one concession: letting people come inside to wait for someone else getting a haircut.
But for others still in the never-COVID club, the time to ease up in at least some ways has come.
“I was pretty darn careful in the beginning,” said Danforth, the UC Riverside graphic designer. “Now, not so much, just because the world has opened up again. Most of my friends have already gotten COVID. If we hang out, it’s usually outside, which is relatively safe.”
But other than avoiding indoor crowds, Danforth acknowledges she’s not taking as many precautions now.
Evans is still being careful at the grocery store, but he said he’s having family come over again, though everyone stays masked up.
Severtson said she and her family — a husband and two sons who have never tested positive either — are still doing their best to keep it at bay. She said she’s avoiding certain indoor spaces like movie theaters, but she’s less worried than she once was about the outcome if she were to get it.
“I feel like I’m leaning more toward a normal life,” she said. “I’m thinking the vaccines should be doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Govea said he’s always trying to stay safe, but at the same time his family is back to trying to be as active as possible.
“I feel like the lost years of COVID impacted a lot of people’s mental health, and the kids’ social development,” he said.
“Going out and being active is kind of a reaction to those dark moments in the pandemic,” he said. “I love smiles. I love strangers waving at my kid and them waving back. In 2021, it was like, stay away from them, don’t breathe on them … there was all this tension. That wasn’t a good place to live.”