COVID-19, aka the coronavirus, is the deafening pulse flooding every connected screen worldwide. Between the panic, confusion, misinformation, and mad dash to be prepared, we lose touch with the human experience at the base of this global threat.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 4,000 people around the country have tested positive for coronavirus. Unfortunately enough, I have a firsthand connection to a COVID-19 positive patient in Va.
My friend Joe McGrath, a sound engineer in the D.C. area, announced on Facebook on March 14 that he received a call from the department of health confirming that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He then began posting videos of his experience, documenting his symptoms, and telling the world what to expect.
Joe’s timeline of experience
His timeline starts between Feb. 27 and 29. He was working an event in the National Harbor area of Maryland and didn’t know he was exposed, so life went on as if he hadn’t been: Working sound at other events, taking his daughter to the park, going out to eat with his friends and family.
McGrath started feeling a scratchy throat in the evening of March 9, but didn’t think anything of it.
“It was nothing to cause any alarm,” he said. “Just a little stinging sensation.”
He woke up on March 10 with the same sensation and over the day developed a cough, which he explained was more like clearing his throat.
“I think you would spell it, AHEM,” he said.
On March 11, he was feeling the same sensation, and a true light cough developed.
“It was like being in a dusty environment kind of cough,” he explained. “Nothing that is out of the ordinary for seasonal allergies.”
On the evening of the 11th, McGrath started feeling abdominal cramps and experiencing pain through his ribs on his sides.
When he woke up on March 12: “Everything kind of hit me, and the hammer dropped,” he said. “The second I opened my eyes, I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I’m sick.’”
His fever was 102, he had a throbbing headache behind his eyes, and his cough was still mild and unproductive. Because of his symptoms, he started doing research and looking into different cases and case studies in China. He discovered active cases from the event he was working in late February. That’s when he knew he needed to get tested.
“It turns out the health department has a really large list, and they already had my name as a possibly exposed person of interest,” he said.
As soon as he called, the wheels started turning. The medical group that treated him suggested that he get tested and laid out specific instructions about how to enter the testing location.
The hospital sent McGrath home an hour or so later and instructed him to quarantine himself. His fever and cough remained unchanged, but his headache got worse, and he started developing body pain across his entire torso. On the 13th, his cough got worse, and he was having frequent coughing fits.
On the 14th, McGrath woke up feeling decent, his fever dropped to 100 and his coughs finally started producing. The pain in his ribs started to spread throughout his body, and he started getting shortness of breath.
McGrath received the call around 11 a.m. from Virginia Department of Health confirming that he had tested positive, to remain in quarantine, and that he would be hearing from doctors throughout the day.
“I got off the phone with them and started having a complete panic attack,” McGrath said.
The medical group called him next, followed by the Virginia Department of Health again, the county health department, and then the CDC. While talking to a DOH doctor about his symptoms, specifically his rib pain and shortness of breath, the doctor was alarmed that it might be pneumonia, and set McGrath up to get screened.
“The doctor I was talking with called a health facility to set it up, and then called me back and said they were waiting for me,” McGrath said. “The doctor said, ‘When you get there, I need you to call this phone number from the parking garage. Do not get out of your car. Put this mask on and wait.’”
After McGrath arrived at the facility and called the number, he recorded a video and posted it to Facebook.
“I was freaking out,” he said. “This guy in an astronaut suit comes out and says, ‘Come with me.’ He walks me in through the regular waiting room, people are looking at me being escorted by this biologically protected guy, and I was just wearing a mask with my hands in my pockets. People are looking at me like I’m Hannibal or something, clutching at their children. He walked me into an emergency room with a sliding glass door and told me to get comfortable. Then people start walking by and looking at me. I could see people starting to suit up and get in the bio gear.”
While he was in the ER, doctors and nurses evaluated, X-rayed, and monitored him.
McGrath was admitted to stay overnight because the hospital had to have an infectious disease doctor read his X-ray.
“There was a lot of inflammation of my lungs caused by COVID-19, and the doctor said he didn’t know if I had pneumonia or not; he had never seen an X-ray of someone with COVID-19,” McGrath said. “So they decided to keep me there until they found someone who could clear me.”
Once McGrath was admitted, he was placed in a room that was separated by another room, which he described as having vacuum doors, before reaching the hallway. The middle room had stacks of protective gear like masks, gowns, goggles and gloves.
“I am their patient zero,” McGrath said. “That’s when all the oddities of the hospital started.”
McGrath described the process of his nurse getting dressed in a bio suit to come into the room, but then confusion in where to remove the suit, either in his room or in the middle room. McGrath overheard other medical professionals talking about the process in the middle room. He said that they all sounded paranoid about letting the virus out, and they couldn’t figure out the correct scrubbing in and out process.
He said that he is sure that process is going to get better.
While staying overnight, McGrath’s fever dropped, but the coughing got a lot worse, and he couldn’t catch his breath.
“Talking would completely wear me out,” he said.
McGrath said a pulmonologist came in and did an assessment. While they were talking, McGrath’s oxygen levels started dropping.
“My O2 levels dropped to 63 percent,” he said. “That’s like deadly dangerous.”
McGrath said they put him on oxygen and started doing breathing treatments, and his lungs started showing improvement right away. His oxygen levels came up into the 80s and 90s by the early morning.
“Basically, I was having a severe asthma attack brought on by the virus,” McGrath said. “The virus definitely exacerbates the underlying conditions, asthma in my case.”
McGrath said that even though he has asthma, it doesn’t usually affect him on a day to day basis.
By 10 a.m. on March 15, he was cleared for pneumonia and instructed to go back to self-quarantine at his house.
“I didn’t realize that I was locked in the whole time until the nurse said, ‘I’m going to leave the door unlocked, and you can leave when you’re ready,’” McGrath said. “They didn’t escort me out. I had to look for an exit sign, take an elevator, and follow signs back to the ER to leave.”
McGrath said he feels like he turned a corner on March 15. At the time of this interview on March 16, he only had a few coughing fits and sounded energetic. He is concerned about his friends, family, and coworkers whom he may have passed the virus on to. Some are showing symptoms and getting tested this week.
“They are checking in with me daily for now,” McGrath said. “Once I feel back to normal, they’re going to administer more testing. I need to have two consecutive negative tests to be considered virus free. It could be a month from now.”
What was running through your mind through the entire process?
“Being patient zero … was terrifying. When I found out that I had it, I was like, I’m going to die. I hadn’t read too much into it. I didn’t want to psych myself out, but just hearing that confirmation, ‘you are positive,’ from the health department, it was surreal. It floored me, my heart started pounding. I have this completely unknown virus. I thought, what’s this going to mean to me, and I was thinking about family.
“I immediately started feeling horrible. It’s hard not to feel bad. There is this other technician that’s going through testing now, and I’m his only source of contamination. That’s a direct result of being around me.”
It’s one thing to see and read about it. What is it like to live it?
“You hear about this kind of stuff, but it’s not something that happens to my friends. I don’t know anyone with ebola. There are all these diseases in the past that have come and gone that I’ve had no problems with.
What are you and your family doing now to quarantine?
“Up until March 12, my wife and I were sharing a bed. I wasn’t coughing on my daughter, but I was around my family and in our home’s general population. On the 12th, when I went to get tested, I was instructed to, until test results come back, stay away from my family. We set up an air mattress in a storage room. Now I’m just kind of living in this room.”
How are you living day to day?
“My wife is a saint, taking care of the baby and cooking and cleaning, and bringing me food, and bringing dirty dishes back to the kitchen, and cleaning up after me, and keeping contamination free while taking care of me while I can’t help her. I’m glad I’m getting stronger and getting better. If it’s her time next, which it looks like it’s going to be, I’m going to have to do everything.”
You own your own company as a sound engineer. How is work?
“So, as an audio engineer I put on concerts and events, and I’m a pretty good one. I get a lot of work. I’ve had bookings through spring and summer. It’s supposed to be a busy season right now. Everyone would have work right now. Our industry came to a screeching halt. Going back a couple of weeks, we started having cancellations. The first cancellation was for a 10-day show, and that was a huge blow. I’m hitting a lot of contracts falling through and canceling. Now I do not have a single show, event, concert, or convention through June.”
It seems like there’s been a lot of Facebook support.
“It feels great. I’m not even seeing a lot of it. A lot of people have shared my videos and posts, and they’ve had it shared, and that chain is stretching out, and I can’t even see the support that’s out there. I don’t want a lot of attention, but having that attention is giving other people the knowledge they need to get through. Everyone on my page are close friends and acquaintances that I know well, and a lot of them have been skeptics as well up until this. I definitely know that I’ve affected some people’s look at this virus.”
How is the government, medical, etc. tracking you now?
“I just got a follow up before I talked to you, a video visit, a doctor FaceTiming, checking in on me. It’s great to talk to a real doctor face to face, giving me straight answers with no mask. I have talked to someone via the health department, CDC, or (hospital) directly every day, and I think that will continue for a little while. I was told by a disease doctor that I was (the medical group’s) first case, so they will track me through this progression to help them gain information, especially about asthmatics.
What’s your response to everyone who isn’t taking this seriously?
“This is one of those times, as a human community, we’re all susceptible to this, we’re all here. If I can help just a couple of people possibly recognize, ‘Hey, I’m having this, I should probably self-quarantine,’ why would I be selfish with my personal information? I don’t care about my personal information.
“As someone who doesn’t take a lot of things seriously, I understand them. I understand that the government isn’t always giving you everything straight, the media isn’t always giving you everything straight. A lot of people are looking at this as a distraction. The harsh reality is, we are under attack by a virus, and just because it’s not killing people in their 20s doesn’t mean people in their 20s should ignore it. Everyone has someone in the 40s to later years that they love that are not as resistant to this virus as they are. My daughter, for instance, she is 2 years old, and she has no idea she is most likely carrying this illness, and she could infect others. She could give her grandparents or great-grandparents a hug and have devastating effects on their life.”
What’s your biggest takeaway?
“We are so fragile, all of us, as a species, as a population, as a people. We’re very fragile. The transmission of this virus is so fast, and it seems harmless, that if you’re non-symptomatic, that giving your grandfather a hug is no big deal, but now having my grandfather in the hospital right now is crazy. We’re all very, very susceptible to this, we’re all going to be affected. My story is fresh, it’s new. By the end of this, though, we’ll all have a story like mine or know someone with a story like mine.”
Multiple members of McGrath’s family are now showing symptoms of COVID-19. His video blog about his experiences is viewable to the public on his Facebook page and will be shared through the Lake Gaston Gazette-Observer website, lakegastongazette-observer.com, and Facebook page.