Oregon journalists who got COVID tell their personal stories
Editor's note: The following conversation occurred over email between two Oregon journalists who contracted COVID-19, Pamplin Media Group Managing Editor Vance Tong of Oregon City and former Forest Grove News-Times editor Jill Smith of Gaston.
Vance Tong: I'm curious where you think you picked up the virus.
Jill Smith: I'm not absolutely sure where I got it but I suspect it was at the homeless shelter where I volunteer out here in western Washington County. I did a double shift that day, which included an overnight shift plus an evening shift, where I signed in people as they arrived, which put me in pretty close contact with everyone who walked in (maskless — this was very early in our pandemic awareness). That was back on March 12, a Thursday, and it was the first day "social distancing" entered our national vocabulary. I remember because I heard about it from one of the other volunteers, who was demonstrating how we were supposed to stand 6 feet apart. I thought, "That seems weird. I wonder if everybody will do that." As far as I could tell, nobody else was doing it that night, including me.
Later that evening as we prepared for lights out, a fellow volunteer informed me that one of the guests had a 102-degree fever and was coughing so they'd isolated him down some stairs and in a hallway, away from everyone else. "Fever and a cough" were one of only three or four key symptoms back then so I wondered if he had it — and if I'd been infected since I had interacted with him several times that night.
I can't be sure if I got it from him but four days later, Monday morning, I woke up with a fever and fatigue. I'm generally very healthy and have had a fever maybe twice over the past decade, if at all. So that afternoon, I became the first person in Forest Grove to be tested at our local clinic. It was back when testing facilities were swamped so they kept passing completed-but-unprocessed test vials on to other facilities for processing. But those facilities would also be swamped, so would pass them on. And so on. I had to wait 10 days for my test to finally be processed, officially confirming I had the virus.
When did you first notice symptoms and where do you think you got the virus?
Tong: We're fairly certain our 19-year-old son brought it home to us. It's possible it's from one of his friends or from a customer of the store he works at. Either way, my fiancee Joleen and I had been staying home anyway, so it's highly unlikely we brought COVID home.
Due to some family conflicts, we celebrated Thanksgiving a day early. Our son Zeke went to work on the Friday after Thanksgiving and Joleen left the house for a few hours to visit my parents (who have already tested negative).
When he came home and then proceeded to sleep for nearly 20 hours, we initially didn't think much of it since he'd stayed up doing an all-night gaming session and then went to work. However, when he woke up and said he wasn't feeling well, that was our first indication. Shortly thereafter, Joleen and I both started exhibiting the symptoms. Dehydration, fatigue, sniffles, dry cough, headache, body aches.
On Monday, Nov. 30, we made an appointment for a virtual visit about our suspected infection. On Wednesday, Dec. 2, all three of us had virtual appointments followed by a drive-through test and 15 minutes later ... viola! We all tested positive.
Since then, we've all been quarantined at the house. Groceries are delivered to the door. The county (I think) health department called the house to find out who we'd been in contact with. In Zeke's case, they took down names and numbers of people he had been in contact with, presumably to let them know they should be tested.
Smith: Wow! Just 15 minutes compared to 10 whole days for your test results! It's a miracle!
And yes, I got a contact-tracing phone call as well. Since I'm retired, the only people I'd really been near (other than at the homeless shelter) were my husband and our two housemates. One of them eventually tested positive for COVID a week or so later but my husband and our other housemate never got tested and never seemed to get sick even though they were in pretty close contact with us. My husband had been really sick for about three days in late February. Perhaps he had COVID then and his resulting immunity warded off my germs. No way to know because it was so early in the pandemic, we never connected his sickness to COVID so never thought to get him tested. (Not that he would have been able to get a test — there were very few, if any, available in Oregon at that point and medical offices were being kind of stingy with who they tested.)
Did you all have pretty much the same symptoms?
Tong: The interesting thing for us is that COVID has really affected each of us differently. I have the most fatigue of anyone in the house, Joleen has more headaches, and Zeke, well, he's a 19-year-old who could probably eat Tupperware and be OK.
For me, it's the rollercoaster feeling that is the worst. One day, I feel better, the next I feel like crap. One day, I don't need a nap, the next I need two. However, through it all I have this unwavering fogginess. Stuff that once took me a few minutes to do (like editing a story) can take me an hour or more.
Oh, and I do the cooking in the house, so that's been interesting since my sense of smell is shot and my sense of taste is compromised — at best. Last night, I made pesto that tasted OK to me, but Zeke and Joleen could barely choke it down because they thought there was too much garlic.
Smith: My primary symptom from Day 1 was fatigue. Endless, crushing fatigue, especially through the first week or two. I slept all night and napped all day and only left my bed to go to the bathroom. My husband and one of our housemates (the one who got COVID shortly after I did) brought food in to me. Those were the only people I saw during those early weeks.
At first, I didn't even have energy to read or watch movies or go online except for minimal email exchanges.
I remember learning that even typing an exclamation mark instead of a period took extra energy, that you had to actually feel the stronger emphasis, and that I couldn't summon the tiny bit of energy needed to type it where it belonged in one of my emails.
I turned all my COVID-update duties over to a close friend, who'd check in with my husband or me via phone and then email my friends and family around the country.
Anyway, somewhere near the end of the first week or beginning of the second, I was able to sit up and read. So I decided to re-read "The Lord of the Rings." Reading worked pretty well, although it was also exhausting so I had to take naps along the way. By week two, I was able to watch a few movies. I was definitely improving.
The two other main symptoms I had were: 1) A fever, although it was never higher than 102, and 2) I hated food. I don't know if that's because I lost my sense of smell or taste or both. All I know is that when I tried to eat a piece of chicken it tasted like a mixture of sand and gravel and dust. I forced it down because I knew I needed some kind of nourishment but that's how all my food tasted. I hated everything except apples. I'd eat four or five apples a day. And I don't even like apples.
By now, we know COVID-19 has about 50 different symptoms — everything from stroke to groin pain to rashes to mental confusion. In addition to the standard list, did you have any weird ones?
Tong: I haven't had the fatigue to the level that you did, but excess mental work gives me a headache (I'm getting one now).
None of us have experienced what I would call a full-on fever, but we've all had chills followed by hot flashes. More of the roller coaster. One minute you're fine, the next you're shivering or sweating.
So, the weirdest of the symptoms for us has just been the fogginess. Even Joleen complained that a report she had to do the other day would have normally taken her an hour. Instead, it took her the better part of a day.
Oh, and there's the achy joints. One morning I woke up and it felt like I'd been doing stair climbing all night. If only ...
Smith: Thanks for making me laugh. Sometimes humor is the best thing to help you through it all, although it takes energy to laugh ...
And yes, I had a "mental confusion" problem too, although it showed up in different ways. For a while, I woke up every morning knowing that I'd just been thinking about something extremely important that I needed to do but had forgotten what it was, so I'd spend anywhere from a half-hour to an hour desperately trying to remember this "crucial thing." I never remembered it, of course, and my world never fell apart and at some point, that just stopped happening. I was also just generally foggy and thought people had said things it turned out they'd never said.
Here's how I categorize my symptoms:
Main symptoms: Fatigue/weakness, Fever (100-102 degrees), Hating food (except apples and, after a week or so, hot dogs — for a while I was eating hot dogs every day, sometimes twice a day, for breakfast and lunch — and before COVID I'd been vegan!)
Lesser symptoms: Mental Confusion, Sporadic cough (once an hour or so), Sporadic sneezing/sniffles (couple times a day), Dizziness
One-time only symptoms: Fainted (first time ever), Puked (first time in at least 10 years)
By the end of my second week, the fever was gone. Have you started feeling better yet? Any progress since you were first hit with the symptoms?
Tong: We've definitely all made progress. Zeke seems to be fully recovered and Joleen is nearly recovered as well. My sense of smell is still MIA and taste is wonky. Fatigue issues seem to be getting better, but that's difficult to ascertain until around noon. I usually feel pretty good in the mornings. Joleen and I were both able to get out for a walk this morning, so I think we're definitely on the mend.
Smith: Somewhere in the third week of my COVID, I decided to try walking our dog to the pond down the road. I used to do this every day so was very familiar with my healthy walking speed — and very aware of how dramatically slower I moved on that very first post-COVID walk. This became the scale by which I measured my recovery. I initially plodded along about four or five times slower than my usual pace, panting quietly, but I felt the sunshine and fresh air was still doing me good. By week four, I was a little faster and didn't feel quite as exhausted at the end of each walk. But I didn't feel completely back to normal until the end of week five. That morning walk on Monday, five weeks after my test, was the first time I walked at my normal pace and got home still feeling strong. So it was an even five weeks for my COVID saga, from start to finish. Ideally, you'll finish sooner.
Overall, I felt like my version of COVID was pretty easy, given that I had no pain (headaches, sore throat) or scary coughs or breathing problems like so many other people. All I wanted was sleep — and I got it. Also, I love food again!
By Vance Tong
Executive Editor, Pamplin Media Group
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