‘What If You Just Don’t Tell Anyone?’

Why some people pretend they never had COVID-19

A woman sitting outside by herself.
Getty / The Atlantic

What do I do now?

COVID-19 diagnoses start with a barrage of grueling decisions and paralyzing worries. Did I infect anyone else? Whom will I tell? Where can I isolate? Should I go to the hospital? Will I be okay?

Millions of Americans have fallen sick with this virus, and we’ve seen the full kaleidoscope of ways people react and cope with illness. Some have dutifully rung up contact tracers and locked themselves in total isolation. In March, after a 63-year-old man in Los Angeles broke out in coughing fits and couldn’t get hold of a coronavirus test, he spent five days quarantining in his 2009 Mercedes. Other people have been an epidemiologist’s worst nightmare. Someone in southern Oregon kept going to work after falling sick, super-spreading the virus and killing seven people. A groom in Texas reportedly tested positive one day and went on with his maskless wedding party the next. “Oh, no, no, no, don’t freak out,” a bridesmaid told the very freaked-out photographer. “He doesn’t have symptoms. He’s fine.”

Then there’s a more curious response. Some people tuck away a bout of COVID-19 like it’s a deep, dark secret. Even among those who have been fully responsible about quarantining, at least a small number have decided not to tell their closest relatives—or their friends, or anyone at all—that they are sick in the first place. Long after they recover, they hide what they’ve been through, resorting to lies and subterfuge.

It’s impossible to speculate about just how many COVID camouflagers are out there, given that, well, their whole aim is to keep their illness under wraps. I was able to connect with three of them, all on the condition of anonymity, to suss out why they made the call to hide a life-threatening illness from the people who most value their life.

One Philadelphia father who got the virus in the spring confessed to me that his son still doesn’t know what he’s been through. He doesn’t want his 12-year-old chirping at his friends, “Dude, my dad got the ’rona,” he said. An anguished health-care worker in New York told me about the baggage from shrouding her illness from her mother and grandmother. Her mom went into full-on panic mode in March, blaming the pandemic on 5G towers and chemists, so why add to her hysteria?

The grandest coronavirus cover-up I encountered, by far, came from Michelle, a flight attendant for a major airline who asked to be identified by her first name so that word wouldn’t reach her family. In late March, when most Americans were still settling into their year of quarantine and social distancing, Michelle was holed up in her Connecticut home for six weeks, battling a virus that robbed her of her sense of smell and taste, then her breath, and then strengthened its grip as it nearly put her in the hospital. Besides her boyfriend, a cousin, and one friend, no one knows what she’s been through.

Since early June, she and I have had a series of long, meandering conversations about her illness. Before coming down with COVID-19, Michelle said, she never kept secrets from her family. She splits her time between Connecticut and Florida, where she lives right down the street from her parents in the same gated community. As a teenager, Michelle would always fess up after borrowing her dad’s car. She’s 60 years old now, and her parents have met every single man she’s ever dated. There was one fender bender a few years back that she didn’t tell them about, but she swears that’s it.

That was before the pandemic. In late March, Michelle worked on a packed flight from Tel Aviv to the United States, and so many of the passengers seemed sick. Three days later, she knew something was wrong. “I had hallucinations,” she said. “I was really, really sick. I don’t think I had enough breath to even talk. I’ve had the flu before; that’s aches and pains. This is unbearable pain.” Her doctor sent her to a drive-through clinic for a COVID-19 test. She knew even before she heard the result: positive.

Michelle put herself in full quarantine. Right away, she told her boyfriend, who lives nearby, that she had COVID-19 and wouldn’t be seeing him for a while. She stayed at home all alone as the virus clamped down on her body. When she lost her sense of smell, she would mistakenly let her dinner go in circles in the microwave until it burned up. When swallowing got tough, she forced herself to drink water. When the virus smothered her ability to speak, she settled on sharing her status with a few more people, texting a friend and a cousin.

“The friend was horrified, almost like she could catch it through the phone,” Michelle said. “Even in telling one person, there was so much judgment about everything. When I started getting better, I said, ‘Oh, I had a good day today. I was able to walk to the mailbox.’ And the friend was even judgmental about that, as if I was spreading it to the entire neighborhood.” Michelle was Zooming with her doctor all the time and following every recommendation, but her cousin lashed out, too, and said it all wasn’t enough.

Michelle was confident that she hadn’t done anything wrong. She always washed her hands for the full 20 seconds. She never took her mask off in-flight. But haunted by the shame, she completely shut down. “In March, if you were COVID-positive, you were a leper,” she said. She’s the closest thing her parents have to a caretaker, so the last thing she wanted to do was rack them with worry that they might lose her. Michelle’s boyfriend nudged her toward the idea: What if you just don’t tell anyone else?

She began to dodge her parents’ phone calls, enlisting her boyfriend as a co-conspirator who would call them back and lie. “Oh, Michelle’s just stuck in Connecticut for work, waiting for her next flight assignment.” When her nieces checked in on her, worried that she might catch the virus from all the flying, she would tactfully shoot off “Oh, everything’s fine” texts.

Over the months, the minor fib has spiraled into Mrs. Doubtfire levels of deception. Now, long since Michelle recovered enough to fly again and head down to Florida, she still fears that if she tells her parents, “they’ll hear on the news that someone else tested positive after getting over it and they’ll be worried,” she told me. “I’m just going to let them think that I’m bulletproof and that I’ve dodged it.” She doesn’t even think about telling strangers or her co-workers. If two of the people she trusted most reacted so poorly, why would anyone else treat her better?

No one hides an illness because they enjoy unleashing a cascade of lies. Sometimes, people think of what they’re doing as an act of kindness, says Meghan Moran, a health-communications scholar at Johns Hopkins University. “We’re constantly making decisions about what version of ourselves we want to present to others,” she told me. “Disclosing an illness could fracture the impression that people have of us. It’s giving up control.” Long before the pandemic, all sorts of people concealed all sorts of illnesses. Some of the writer Nora Ephron’s closest friends heard that she was sick with leukemia only a day or so before the disease killed her in 2012. One study in the United Kingdom found that 40 percent of gay men with HIV didn’t tell their family members about their diagnosis.

But secrecy can also be motivated by one of the deepest-rooted myths around: that health is a sign of virtue, and infection a sign of sin. A particularly cruel dynamic of the coronavirus is that although everyone runs the risk of contracting it, those unlucky enough to fall ill can still feel the wrath of shame from those lucky enough not to. “It’s not surprising that people are scared of judgment when we’ve been telling them for months on end that if they take any risks, they are selfish, reckless, and irresponsible,” Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist and frequent Atlantic contributor, told me. “So of course when people test positive, their first reaction is What did I do wrong?

From spring-break revelers in March to Thanksgiving travelers in November, risk takers have been cast as one of the pandemic’s arch villains. Some people really have acted pretty boneheadedly during all of this, but risk takers aren’t the reason the United States has bungled its pandemic response to such world-historical proportions. Rather, since the beginning of this crisis, government leaders at every level have failed to proffer Americans the very things they need most in a moment like this: clear messaging on how to stay safe, and basic resources that will help them do so. In that vacuum, Americans have only one thing left to protect themselves: personal responsibility.

For the most part, “people are making rational decisions with the information they have,” says John Pachankis, a public-health professor who runs Yale’s LGBTQ Mental Health Initiative. With all the stigma around the coronavirus, Pachankis told me, COVID camouflaging reminds him of an entirely different phenomenon: staying in the closet. People don’t conceal who they are because of some spur-of-the-moment brain fritz, he said. They do so after endlessly running the cost-benefit analysis in their head and deciding that telling the truth is just not worth it.

Still, even after weighing the options, the deception is never easy. Over the months that Michelle and I have talked, I’ve sensed the mounting stress and torment of having to harbor her secret. Simply keeping up the ruse all the time seems to be draining, after everything the disease did to her. She’s thankful that she’s not one of the tens of thousands of American airline workers who have lost their job during the pandemic, but she said she still has trouble catching her breath on the job, especially when she’s playing Tetris by rejiggering luggage in overhead bins. Her taste and smell flipped back on in May, but her love of food and cooking never quite did. Clumps of her hair are mysteriously gone. The virus “just ravaged me and my looks,” she said. For the first time in her life, she has crippling migraines that have her frequently popping aspirin.

Before, going over to her parents’ place was just a quick little walk. Now she says it requires an elaborate game of dress-up to hide the scars of COVID-19. She blankets herself in makeup, and even though she’s tested positive for antibodies and doubts she can spread the virus, she puts on a mask and never takes it off. Her parents are deep into their 80s, and recently they’ve needed more help around the house. Michelle used to pick up the slack, ascending a ladder to clean out the gutters and tightening the loose shower handle. “Now I just can’t do it,” she admitted.

The last time we talked, in December, Michelle was stewing that her parents might finally be on to her. “Why not just tell them?” I asked her. She didn’t hesitate. “As long as I can get away with not telling anyone else, that’s what I plan on doing,” she said. She’s simply started spending less time in Florida with her family to escape from it all.