One Man’s COVID Nightmare
When the Pandemic Becomes Personal
BY STEVE OLSON
January: When asked by a reporter if he’s worried about COVID-19, Donald Trump says the virus is contained. “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
March: “We will try working remotely tomorrow as a test run.” The company where I work employs thousands and has never before entertained the idea of working remotely for any amount of time. There’s talk that the governor of Minnesota might issue a stay-at-home order and we should be prepared.
We haven’t been back in the office since.
March/April: Minnesotans are ordered to stay home for 14 days, only allowed to leave the house for essential needs. Other states have already shut down. The roads become virtual ghost towns. “Social distancing” becomes a household term and wearing a mask becomes a part of everyday life. The stay-at-home order gets extended in a continued effort to give healthcare workers time to prepare for a surge in cases.
I joke. Maybe I’ve caught the virus!
May/June: The stay-at-home order runs its course and people slowly start coming back out. Minnesotans settle into a new normal. Businesses open with new stickers showing where to stand with signs describing how to stay safe. Most follow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer; other states don’t comply as fully.
July: My girlfriend and I start babysitting her grandson every other week day as things open up more. I pick him up from his daycare. I wear my mask and use hand sanitizer, that’s now in my car, after each visit.
I joke again.
August: My friend at work is out sick. He misses a day and no one hears from him. I don’t even give it a second thought, but then he’s out sick for a couple of days. I ask him if he’s feeling better when he finally gets back online.
He says he’s not 100 percent but is getting better; no further conversation about his illness happens between us.
I don’t cough.
But I’m tired.
I wake up in late August after a full night’s sleep but I feel like I haven’t slept at all. I start work and make it to lunch. I tell my work friend, the one who was just out sick, that I need to lay down for a minute and I’ll be right back.
Instead, I sleep until after dinner. I awake more exhausted than ever. My muscles ache so badly that I can’t lay comfortably on my bed. The weight of my body on my muscles causes such pain that it’s unbearable.
I’m so tired that all I want to do is sleep some more, but I can’t get into a position where I’m comfortable enough to do so. My mattress, which is usually so soft, now feels like a torture chamber.
I awake the next morning and come to the realization that this is no longer a joke.
I may have COVID.
I research the virus and, except for lack of a fever, I appear to be the poster child for coronavirus symptoms. COVID is the gift that keeps giving: one day it’s headaches, the next dizziness, the next nausea.
I can feel a gel-like substance forming in my lungs that’s common with the virus, and makes ventilators mostly ineffective. It makes it difficult to catch my breath. The food I eat has mostly lost its taste; the only flavors that come through are slight sensations of salty or sour. I refer to it as “taste around the edges.”
I determine that I need to get tested.
Before heading out, I seriously question if I can make it the six miles to the nearest urgent care. I’m not totally sure it’s safe for me to drive. I worry that I’ll fall asleep behind the wheel. But I don’t want to ask anyone else to take me because I could be contagious.
I enter the waiting room and feel as if there’s a huge neon sign over my head that says I’m contagious and everyone knows I have the virus. After a couple of minutes, a nurse takes me into an exam room to perform the test. It involves sticking cotton swabs up both nostrils. She tells me some people compare it to the feeling of eating wasabi (that burning sensation in your nostrils when you eat spicy food). I find it to be far more uncomfortable than that. My eyes tear up and an uncomfortable sensation, where the swabs touch the tops of my sinuses, lingers.
The nurse leaves the room and a few minutes later another enters. She asks me questions about where I might’ve caught the virus, and if I have any questions about what to do while I wait for the test results. I tell her I’m not sure where I got it.
I’d read about how to treat COVID while I was researching symptoms, and I tell her some of the suggestions conflict. One article says quarantine for 10 days after the first symptoms, another says quarantine for 10 days after testing positive. Still another says quarantine for 14 days after the first symptoms. She says that the CDC is constantly updating guidance and I should follow its advice, or take the most cautious approach–just to be safe.
As for treating symptoms, the nurse says I can take pain relievers for the muscle aches. Some reports have said ibuprofen may actually increase the pain, she explains, so I should avoid that. If I have a fever, I should take any over-the-counter fever reducer. If my breathing becomes more labored or if I experience more severe pain, I should come back to urgent care. If I truly have the virus, she says, there isn’t much else to do but let the virus run its course.
I’d researched enough to know the virus was something so new that there’s no cure or vaccine. However, it’s troubling (if not terrifying) knowing that there’s something in my body that’s been killing hundreds of thousands of people, and my body is essentially now forced to fight it off all by itself.
September: It takes three days to get the results and it turns out that I have indeed tested positive for COVID.
I was already quarantined since taking the test but now I’m told that I need to quarantine for another week.
My girlfriend and her grandson also test positive for the virus. However, neither show any real signs or symptoms. Medical experts say that children are less affected by the virus. The experts also say that blood type A is much more likely to be impacted by the virus than other blood types. I am blood type A, my girlfriend is B.
A Hennepin County (Minnesota) Health Services employee contacts me. The department is tracing my interactions. It wants to know who I’ve been with and where I’ve gone over the past two weeks. I list all the stores and restaurants that I’ve visited. They take names and numbers of friends and relatives with whom I’ve spent time. They give me more guidance on quarantining myself and protecting others. They spell out how to interact with my 18-year-old son, with whom I live in an apartment, and how I should have friends and family drop off deliveries outside our door.
My son and I share a two-bedroom apartment. I was already trying to avoid him by staying in my bedroom (we each have our own bathroom) but there are not many other places to go to keep ourselves separate. I don’t want to infect him so I bring my laptop into bed and try to work as much as I can, given my fatigue and lessened focus.
My son chooses to act as if he’s tested positive, too, and he stays quarantined with me. We talk to each other from across the apartment. He decides to keep his distance but he never takes any further precautions. My son feels that, if he catches the virus, he could put it behind him. He’s not as worried as I am about him catching it. Fortunately, he remains virus-free.
We have friends and family bring us groceries. They leave bags outside our apartment door and we collect them once they’re far enough down the hallway, far enough to be considered a safe distance away. We say our hellos but that’s our only in-person contact with the outside world. For 10 days.
My son had been working at a coffee kiosk at the Mall of America when the stay-at-home order went into effect. He was furloughed and still hasn’t been asked to return. He may never get his job back and he’s now looking for a new one. So is everyone else his age.
I talk to my friend at work who was sick before me. He describes having the exact same symptoms I had. He went through the same stages as well. Yet he was tested for COVID and his result came back negative. Both of us are sure he’s one of the people who’s been misdiagnosed; the similarities are too striking.
A week goes by as I just sleep and work. I cannot describe how tired I am. I’ve had a 24-hour flu in the past and slept for a day or so, but awakened mostly recovered. With COVID, I sleep for 12 hours, wake up, drink water and eat a little food, and then go back to bed. I then sleep for another eight hours and still wake up so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open. I lay in bed while I work because I have so much pain in my neck that I can’t even hold my own head up.
Food I had regularly eaten right before getting the virus is now unappealing to me. I was eating a lot of green vegetables and, even now, the thought of eating them again makes my stomach turn. During the darkest hours of the virus, I give up on almost all food. The thought of eating anything makes my nauseous. The one exception is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; they’re the only solid “food” I eat for several days.
Once I do start feeling better, I’m still relegated to my bedroom. I’m desperate to go out for a run and decide to run in place in my bedroom, so I can at least get some exercise. I run for an hour but I feel very light-headed and I struggle to breathe. Still, I do feel better somehow and I’m glad I’ve done it.
By mid-September, I’m free to leave the apartment, my symptoms are getting better, and I’ve remained fever-free without the help of any medicine. I end up quarantining for just 10 days.
October: Everyone wants to know how I got the virus. I really don’t know. I thought I was being extra cautious. I would always wear a mask and use copious amounts of hand sanitizer. I speculate that it may have come from either a restaurant or the grandson’s daycare, because the daycare had a reported case of a parent and child who tested positive (I found this out around the time I was being tested). No one knows for sure. All that really matters though is that I caught it, even with all the precautions.
I obviously didn’t die from the virus but it affected me–it still affects me. I never felt like my life was at risk but I still find it difficult to breathe. I feel fine for a couple of days and then I feel so exhausted I can’t focus or stay awake. Still, I’m probably in much better shape than most 54-year-olds. Before COVID, I’d been running three times a week, including a 13-mile run every weekend.
I continue to worry about the lingering impact. I read articles talking about tests on Big 10 athletes who’ve contracted the virus. Exams show that 35 percent of them have inflamed hearts as a result. What does that even mean? And what are the long-term effects of that? No one is even sure yet. Is my heart inflamed too? Although I’m back to running six-mile short runs twice during the week, I’m still unable to complete my long-distance runs. Will I ever get back to that?
Now: This is where the story should end, but it doesn’t. The virus has become politicized and, because of that, the virus is out of control. The scientific community had planned for a virus just like this. Plans and processes were made to control the spread, but they required strong leadership.
Instead, Trump and his administration have decided to ignore science and medical experts, and have provided no leadership; each state has been left to its own devices. Not only that, the virus has now infected Trump himself and members of his inner circle.
The virus spread much more widely and rapidly in America due to Trump’s complete lack of leadership. The U.S. makes up 4 percent of the earth’s population but 25 percent of the reported cases worldwide. Recent studies suggest 80 percent or more of the people who’ve contracted the virus in America wouldn’t have done so if a different, responsible, and effective course of action had been taken. Another study concludes that Trump personally has been the largest source of COVID misinformation.
I’m lucky. 216,000 Americans, and counting, haven’t been so fortunate. With different, competent leadership, a majority of those people would still be here today. How many more lives will be lost due to this virus? How many more will perish due to the complete failure of leadership?
There are some outliers now pushing for herd immunity. Trump himself has even mistakenly referenced the need for “herd mentality.” Scientists estimate that more than six million Americans would have to die, to reach herd immunity. That doesn’t even account for the unknown damage of contracting the virus and not dying from it. Recent news reports have stated that the virus is now being considered a pre-existing condition. If the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is overturned, several million people could be denied insurance because they’ve been infected with COVID.
I simply don’t understand why this has become political. And it’s only political in America. No other country is struggling with social distancing or wearing masks, while its citizens succumb to the virus. Why, in America, are so many people willing to ignore science and literally die on this hill? Who gains from the lies that Trump is telling?
Just before his release from Walter Reed hospital, where he was treated for the virus, Trump tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of COVID…I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” With his continued gross ineptitude, we will continue to infect and kill our fellow Americans, while the willfully ignorant, misinformed, and conspiracy theorists among us gleefully wave the American flag in their protest of facts.
Again, take it from me: COVID is no joke. And contrary to Trump’s absurd pronouncement, we should be afraid–of the disease, and of people who refuse to acknowledge the truth.
Steve Olson can be reached at
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