- I have been reporting on the coronavirus pandemic for Business Insider since early January.
- Two weeks ago, I started to experience mild symptoms: aches and chills. A week later, I had trouble finishing a sentence without gasping.
- Two doctors told me that I had COVID-19, but my case was not serious enough to test me or admit me to the hospital. I was waiting for him at home.
- I had prepared throughout this possibility, but it seems that my local and federal officials had not done so.
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If I learned one thing by covering the coronavirus pandemic for almost three months, it is to prepare for the worst. When New York State announced its first case on March 1, I immediately bought two weeks of toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, food and coffee for two weeks. I ordered 30 days of essential drugs.
For the next two weeks, I answered frantic questions from my friends about whether they should continue taking training classes (probably not) or whether it was safe to take a walk outside (yes , but stay 6 feet from the others).
When New York City ordered the closure of bars, restaurants and schools on March 15, I made a pact with my two roommates and our four neighbors that we would only see each other again from there. There were seven of us in total – well under the Trump administration’s mandate to limit social gatherings to 10 or less.
Two days later, my body started to hurt.
The moment, I knew, was suspicious, but I was comforted by the fact that I had none of the main symptoms of the virus: fever, dry cough, or difficulty breathing.
I also knew that the people most likely to develop severe cases of the virus were older men with underlying health conditions. Since I do not check any of these boxes, I wondered if my illness was psychosomatic.
But the doctors told me that everyone is vulnerable to the infection. So when the chills set in within 24 hours, I knew something was wrong. I could see why people could confuse symptoms like mine with the flu, but there was something unique about the pain going through my body.
I felt like I had run a marathon and then been hit by a car. I decided to isolate myself inside my apartment.
In the weeks to come, my reports helped me understand what was going on inside my body and when to see a doctor. But none of this could have prepared me for the way I felt sitting alone in the emergency room, struggling to breathe.
Refused in the emergency room
The aches lasted a few days, then gradually improved during the first weekend of my illness. I assumed my health was improving. I forgot my mantra to wait for the worst.
Almost a week after my symptoms started, I started to feel pain in my rib cage. There was also pressure – like someone was clutching my lungs like an accordion. My breathing was heavy.
I scheduled a virtual appointment with a doctor, who told me to go to emergency care if my symptoms worsened. That afternoon, I was having trouble finishing a sentence without gasping. A trip from the bedroom to the bathroom in my little New York apartment made me so short of breath that I had to sit down – all for someone who had run 6 miles every Saturday along the East River.
The one kilometer walk to urgent care left me gasping. I took breaks along the way.
When I arrived, I was given a mask and escorted to a waiting room. No one else was there and the doctor saw me almost immediately. He confirmed what I suspected: I almost certainly had COVID-19. But the emergency care clinic did not administer tests.
Instead, the doctor took my oxygen levels and asked me to walk and talk at the same time. Then he gave me a choice: I could be taken to the emergency room in an ambulance, or go home and try to overcome the symptoms.
Having written about the problems with coronavirus testing in the United States, I knew that New York’s capacity was terribly limited. I also knew that hospitals were starting to overflow with COVID-19 patients. I went home to lie down.
In the evening, I could no longer feel the burning sensation in my ribs or the race to catch my breath. I asked a friend to take me to the emergency room. We both wore masks.
I sat in the waiting room, alone, for about an hour. Then I was taken to a pressure-controlled room the size of a closet. When the doctor arrived, she told me that there was nothing she could do to treat my symptoms. The fact that I could say full sentences was a good sign, she said. In fact, she added, I was an example of why young people with mild cases should stay at home.
Since New York hospitals currently reserve tests for people with the most serious illnesses, many cases reported in the city are from acute patients. But research from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that most cases of coronavirus are mild, suggesting that the majority of infections in New York – including mine – ignore the official number of cases .
“Unfortunately, we are not able to test everyone, even if we want to be able to do it,” said Megan Coffee, an infectious disease clinician in New York. “Right now, we need to focus on everyone who needs intubation and intensive care. “
Yet data from the New York City health department shows that people under the age of 44 account for about one-fifth of city hospitalizations for coronavirus and the majority of diagnosed cases in the city. Out of more than 36,000 cases reported at the end of March, more than 15,000 involved people between the ages of 18 and 44.
My case is far from being an anomaly. But when it comes to data, it doesn’t exist.
In the emergency room, I asked the doctor what it would take to stop my case from being mild – or even to warrant a test. The doctor said I should be having trouble breathing while sitting. (I certainly felt that, but what more can I say?) The hospital could do a chest x-ray, added the doctor, but that would only confirm what they already knew: I had the virus.
Before I left, the doctor told me to come back if my condition worsened. I could barely imagine what it would look like.
We don’t have to wait for death to come into action
After about another week of sleepless nights and labored breathing throughout the day, I started to feel like I could inhale normally. It was around the same time that I developed a sore throat. For about 24 hours, I had trouble swallowing food or liquid.
On day 14 of my symptoms – the day I was supposed to no longer be contagious – the pains returned. I felt like I was back to square one, but at least I could breathe.
Now I need a few laps around the apartment to take my breath away. My body still feels like it was hit by a truck. A clinician advised me to stay indoors until my symptoms disappear, each time it happens.
It seems like there is a life, I was interviewing people confined to their apartments in Wuhan, China.
I was prepared for this to become a reality from the start of my reporting. But my political leaders did not do it.
“There was so much optimism at the start,” Joshua Sharfstein, vice-dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me a few weeks ago. “There was no sense of urgency in the wholesale government. People downplayed the risks and told people that there was no reason to worry. “
In terms of testing, the government didn’t take the crisis seriously until mid-March, said Alex Greninger, deputy director of the University of Washington Medicine’s clinical virology laboratory. By that time, many Americans – including me – had already fallen ill.
“It would have been helpful to know that it was spreading here,” said Greninger. “Unfortunately, it took real morbidity and mortality. It took the Italians. It took propagation in Europe. It took death – I don’t know how to put it otherwise – to really invoke social distancing. “
Death, or at least the imminent possibility of it, is also required to be admitted to hospital or to be tested in New York. Given that, I’m grateful that I didn’t need it either.