by CHRIS ROGERS
Cathryn and Wyatt were being careful. Very, very careful.
“During the lockdown, we hadn’t seen anybody, and we had done all the social distancing and isolation and ordering groceries online and sanitizing stuff,” Cathryn said. “And then the lockdown let up, and we didn’t go back to normal.”
A young married couple in Winona with children, Wyatt was working from home and their kids hadn’t had any playdates with friends since February. Their main social interaction had been occasional visits with family. “We were really cautious,” Cathryn stated.
One day, in late July, Wyatt started having what felt like the beginning of mild allergies. “Not even like a sniffle, but like a mild sore throat kind of,” he recalled. “If it wasn’t the pandemic, we would have totally normally ignored it,” he continued.
“‘Is this COVID?’” Wyatt thought. “‘Nah, I’m being silly.’”
Then Wyatt and Cathryn got a call from someone whom their family had been in contact with and who had just tested positive for the coronavirus. Wyatt’s symptoms still felt like nothing more than mild allergies, but on a Thursday he went in for testing in Winona. It was during a time period when test results could take a week. So Wyatt quarantined at home and waited for the news.
“Over the weekend my symptoms took a nose dive, and I started to feel really terrible,” Wyatt recalled. He started suffering terrible fatigue and body aches. “Things like going up a flight of stairs, which I do tons of times a day … I felt like I had to sit down and rest for 20 minutes just to have energy to do anything,” he said.
On Monday, Wyatt got the news he was already expecting: he tested positive for COVID-19.
Cathryn was also positive. “At that point, I didn’t really feel sick. I felt like maybe I had the lightest cough,” she recalled. “I never had a stuffy nose the whole time. I never had any cold symptoms other than that slight cough and an uncomfortable feeling in my lungs.”
Like other local COVID-19 patients, Cathryn and Wyatt would go on to face a slew of symptoms that changed over the course of their illness. Like others, the severity varied, and some of the symptoms stuck with them weeks and months after their recovery. A healthy 36-year-old, Wyatt said, “If I was someone with a compromised immune system, I’d be scared. Being a healthy person that got that sick — I felt really sick.” Cathryn had the flu earlier this year. “It wasn’t the same,” she said.
Wyatt, Cathryn, and some of the other patients interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their health privacy; they are identified by fictitious first names only.
“I’d actually gone into work because I felt fine until that evening,” healthy, 24-year-old Winonan Chelsea Hanson — her real name — recalled. “I just kind of had a scratchy throat. Nothing too crazy. I didn’t think anything of it.” Two days later, she continued, “I woke up feeling really drained and tired, even just going up the steps to get to my kitchen, making breakfast. It was just that feeling of wanting to go lay down. That’s when I had a feeling I was sick with something, not necessarily COVID.”
Just to be safe, Hanson got tested. It took four days to come back — positive — but by then Hanson already suspected. “That Wednesday I lost my smell and my taste. So that’s when I knew I probably had it,” she said. “And then that Thursday I got my positive result.”
Like Wyatt and Cathryn, Hanson never had a fever. “It makes me feel like, if checking for a fever is your only way to screen, you’re probably going to miss a lot of cases,” Cathryn said.
Sixty-nine-year-old Lamoille-area resident Terry Meyer had a similar experience before getting a COVID diagnosis on top of stage four cancer he was battling: no fever, a slight cough. “Just weak,” he said. “Basically weak. A flight of steps was a big effort for me. I’d have to stop halfway through and take a break.”
Meyer had just finished a grueling course of chemotherapy. At first, he figured the fatigue was just a side effect of chemo.
Angela, a 44-year-old Winonan with asthma, went into work on Friday feeling good. She had had a headache earlier that week but thought nothing of it. Her workplace screens employees for fevers daily, and in the morning, her temperature was normal. Later in the work day, “I started getting really cold and had chills,” she said. She went to get her temperature checked again. “I went from having no symptoms in the morning to having a 101.4 temperature,” she recalled. “It happened so fast,” she added.
“It started out with sore throat, runny nose, and then the fever showed up with body aches,” reported Sarah, a 30-year-old Winonan.
“I think one of the first things was I couldn’t really smell anything,” Amarissa Ruiz, a healthy 20-year-old from Winona, said. “I couldn’t smell food. Even strong scents like Febreeze. I tested that out like, ‘Hello? I’m not crazy here.’” She, too, never had a fever.
COVID-19 can cause a huge range of symptoms: fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches, headaches, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, congestion or runny noses, nausea, and diarrhea — just to name the most common ones, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For each patient, the disease can show a different mix of symptoms in a different order — or even no symptoms at all.
“There’s a wide variety of symptoms, which kind of makes it a little scary because of how differently people present with it,” Dr. Ian Young, of Winona Health’s urgent care and emergency department, said. The scary part is that it’s hard to tell who has COVID-19 based on symptoms alone, he explained.
“Cough, that’s a million things. Fever, that’s a million things,” Young stated. “But loss of taste or smell, that’s almost always COVID,” he continued. Not all patients lose their taste and smell, but for those who do, it’s a red flag.
As a doctor, Young said, “We’ve dealt with colds and sore throats — hundreds, thousands of them — and we are not concerned with most of them.” Now, when a patient comes in with those run-of-the-mill symptoms, he stated, “It could be any one of the other [illnesses] or it could be sneaky, sneaky COVID.”
Asked about early warning signs, Young said, “It’s really varied.” A sore throat was the most common one in his experience. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, 93 percent of adult COVID patients had either fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Some of Young’s patients had strange gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea or nausea and nothing else, he said. Harvard University also reported some people get digestive problems before other symptoms.
Given how “sneaky” the coronavirus can be, Young said, “I’d have to encourage people to err on the side of testing.” The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recommends that people with any single symptom of COVID-19 seek testing, available in Winona at Winona Health and Gundersen Health System.
Of the seven people interview for this story, two believed they or their significant other were infected while at work. Four others had good reason to think the source was one of their family or friends — despite scrupulous precautions. Hanson had no clue how she got it. “I don’t hang out with large groups of friends. I’ve been sticking with my parents and my girlfriend and those circles. I was doing everything to be very cautious,” she stated. “It’s sneaky sometimes.”
“It was depressing,” Wyatt said flatly. “We tried very hard to not get it and not spread it, and we still got it,” he stated. “We were being so careful,” Cathryn echoed.
“I was so responsible with all of this,” Sarah said. “I cut off from everybody. I was a recluse for months, and then I was the one who got it.”
Ruiz said she thought she was exposed through a friend. Before hanging out, the friend didn’t tell Ruiz that one of the friend’s close contacts was having symptoms and waiting for a pending test result, Ruiz reported. That contact later tested positive. “I was not happy about that at all,” Ruiz said. “I was trying to do my best to hang out with just a small group of friends, and wear my mask, and avoid big crowds. It kind of felt like all that went to waste. It kind of felt unfair.”
Later, when Ruiz was actively sick, she said the same friend texted her — did she want to go get ice cream? Ruiz had been matter-of-fact describing her bout with coronavirus, but frustration rose in her voice as she recalled this exchange. “I was like, ‘No, I’m sick. I don’t feel good. My test is pending. Why would I even be leaving the house right now?’” Ruiz said.
“And [my friend] was like, ‘Well, you don’t know you have it.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the point.’”
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recommends people waiting for test results should quarantine themselves at home. Under CDC guidelines, people who have been in close contact (within six feet for 15 minutes or more) with someone with COVID-19 should quarantine themselves at home for 14 days. Even if they test negative, exposed people should continue quarantining for the full 14 days, because the virus could have been dormant at the time of testing but emerge later, both the CDC and MDH advise. According to the CDC, people who are sick with COVID-19 should isolate at home and away from others until all three of the following have been met: It has been at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared, they have gone 24 hours fever-free without taking fever-reducing medication, and their other symptoms are improving.
“The point I want people to know is I did not get a positive test until 20 days after [being sick],” Sarah said. After being exposed, she tested negative twice, then, days later, started having symptoms that grew serious. She is still dealing with lingering health problems. “It makes me really angry when I hear people say, ‘I got my negative test, I can go out,’” Sarah said. “No, you cannot. That’s why it’s spreading.”
The is the first part of a series on local residents’ experiences with COVID-19. To share your story, contact Chris Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org