Life in the Time of the Coronavirus is a GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.
Isabel Simon is a 24-year-old dialysis technician who was living in Lynn, Massachusetts and working in Brookline when she got sick. She is also my second cousin. This is her experience of what it was like to have mild Covid-19.
I’m not positive on the exact date it started, but I’m pretty sure it was either March 9 or 10. I spoke to my father and mentioned that I felt like I had a cold. At that point, the media was saying cold-like symptoms weren’t really what people were experiencing with the coronavirus, so I thought I just had another cold. There are still tons of viruses going around; this is not the only one.
My nose wasn’t necessarily running, but I was definitely congested and generally feeling kind of foggy. I probably had a bit of an itchy throat and felt slightly lethargic. I don’t think I was sneezing. On that Thursday, I went to work and really started to feel not okay.
I went home early. I started feeling really lethargic and fatigued. It felt like a bad cold at that point. I didn’t have a fever. We were diligent about taking temperatures of all the patients and staff, even at that point in early March. I didn’t have body aches or anything like that. I was coughing and just felt really run down.
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I had the next three days off. On Monday, March 16, I was feeling better, so I went into work. At this point, I still thought it was just a cold. Even at work, they were saying, “Well, you don’t have a fever, you don’t have this, you don’t have that.” So, I thought, “Oh, I don’t have the coronavirus.” I hadn’t been in contact with anyone who had it, anyway. On the 17th, I started feeling lousy again, which apparently has been a trend with this virus.
The 16th was the last day I went into work. I called my boss, who said I should go get tested just to make sure. I had a cough, but I don’t know if I would have recognized it as being worse than other coughs, like with your average cold. It would come and go; it wasn’t necessarily even persistent. I went to a drive-through testing site for patients and health care workers. Because I work in health care, I was able to get tested.
At the time, I was living with Susy, my aunt, who is over 70 and has chronic asthma. I traveled home to my parent’s house the next day, because I figured I wanted to be far away from Susy, who is really high risk.
When I got to my parents’ house, I started maybe feeling slight shortness of breath. It was never that pronounced, so it was hard for me to recognize, but I was never gasping for air by any means. Mainly I was just feeling really, really, really tired. Before I left my job, I lost my sense of smell and taste, and I was just thinking that was weird because the congestion went away. My nasal passages were clear, but I still couldn’t smell or taste anything.
I got my results on March 22, a week and a half after my symptoms started. I was positive, and I subsequently got calls from multiple people, like physicians and the public health department.
I continued to feel really unwell for the next two weeks. My symptoms resolved around the 29th, the main thing being I felt like myself again. I didn’t realize that I was feeling so down and that my head was so foggy. Just cloudy feeling, like I’m not thinking properly.
The coughing kind of dissipated. My doctors at Cambridge Health Alliance called me every four days or so. Toward the end, they started doing a test: They had me take one large breath and then count to 30 as quickly as I could in that same breath. They were trying to gauge if I would need to get my lungs examined. But I was fine on that.
I never had a fever. I never had body aches. If I was experiencing shortness of breath, it was nothing too severe. I could still go up stairs, no problem. The congestion didn’t actually last that long, and then it just was the loss of smell and taste. It was so bizarre: I couldn’t smell a thing or taste anything, no matter how strong of a flavor or smell it was, even though my nasal passages were completely clear and I could breathe in and out, no problem. So it wasn’t that I couldn’t smell because my nose was blocked.
The thing I was experiencing is I would feel sort of better, and then the next day I would feel a lot worse. I mean I wasn’t — obviously — leaving the house, even though it’s in the middle of the woods in Connecticut, so there are no people. But I didn’t have a desire to do anything at all. I had zero energy. I just wanted to sit on the couch or in my bed, just lie down. It was really hard to think straight. It was kind of an out-of-body experience at some point.
When I initially found out my results, I asked if anyone else at work had Covid-19. I think there was one patient, who I didn’t have contact with, who was in the hospital. But as far as I know, I was not in contact with anyone who had it or was feeling sick. Like, there’s definitely not an outbreak. I am sorry to say I have no idea where I got it.
My Aunt Susy, she was sick, and I remember her complaining of feeling like she had a cold before my symptoms started, but I don’t know. She tells a different story, so I’m not sure who is remembering right. She did end up getting tested maybe a week and a half ago and was negative. But if she was starting to feel sick even before I did, I guess it would be possible that her test would be negative by that point.
Once I stopped going to work and got tested, I went into self-quarantine. I was being as careful as I could with social distancing and staying in the room. I didn’t have my parents bring me my food and stuff. I would go down to the kitchen and other parts of the house, but I was just very careful and didn’t go close to anyone, and I was washing my hands and stuff, not coughing on anything. It seemed to work—no one’s sick at this point, and I’ve been home now for, like, three weeks.
It was a very bizarre feeling to learn I had it because at that point I didn’t know anyone who was positive. People weren’t being tested widely. I honestly felt a little bit like a social pariah. It was a really weird feeling. I was a little bit relieved in a way, too, because in my case I felt like it was kind of a win-win. It was like, “Okay, well, if I don’t have it, then I definitely know that I haven’t given it to anyone. But if I do have it, then I get to have it over with and don’t have to keep worrying about getting it.” I was feeling sick, but I wasn’t so sick that I was very worried about my health.
I had a lot of people reaching out to me who I haven’t talked to in a while, because I posted on Facebook, mainly because I wanted to spread the knowledge that this loss of smell and taste thing is a symptom in the milder cases. Then, through that, a lot of people were reaching out to me and texting me. People were very supportive and I think worried. I was trying to convey to people that I definitely was experiencing a milder case. I didn’t want people to worry or anything, but I still, I don’t know, I still had a feeling of being isolated. And I think there’s a stigma growing or that’s developed.
I was worried when I first went to the store or something that I would see someone or someone would see me, and they’d think I was endangering the health of the community, and I’d have to explain myself, like, “No, no. I got permission to leave my house, promise.” I’m going to stores now because I’ve been symptom-free for about a week.
I didn’t have a single treating physician, because there were different people calling in, but a physician in the public health department gave me the guidelines on when it was okay. Then I had to get a note from my doctor to return to work. Essentially the guideline is three days after symptoms, so 72 hours and no fever. But I never got a fever.
I’m still not back at work. My employer didn’t have any sort of special thing for Covid-19 in terms of paying their employees. We just have one PTO. We don’t have sick days. I had to apply for short-term disability, because I couldn’t work for three weeks—and I’m only getting 60% of my salary.
My aunt got medical advice from her pulmonary doctor that I should not be living at the house while I’m working at the clinic, because I’m around so many people that I could bring something into the house, I guess even though I’m no longer a carrier. I have to figure out another living situation. So far, I’ve heard nothing from my company about helping me in that way because of all this. I can’t really afford rent in Boston.
I work in Brookline, so temporarily I’ll be staying at my cousin’s apartment, but it’s certainly not a long-term solution. Airbnb is asking hosts to donate space and stuff, so I applied for that—for health care workers and people who’ve been displaced, which I guess are both me now, because I can’t stop going to work. The thing is we are still treating people even if they’re coronavirus-positive, as long as they’re in stable condition, in an attempt to not overwhelm the hospitals. It’s definitely true that I am exposed. So, we’ll see. I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything back from Airbnb.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.