SALT LAKE CITY — Headaches are a normal occurrence for me, so when I felt one mounting Wednesday night as I was getting ready for bed, I figured I would sleep it off and feel better in the morning. But then the pressure in my head turned to heat and the unmistakable feeling of a fever began to creep throughout my body.
I spent the night tossing and turning among shivers and aches and sweat. By morning, I knew it was not a good idea for me to go to work that day. But when I continued to feel unwell for the next 48 hours, another idea became incessant: Did I have COVID-19, otherwise known as the novel coronavirus?
I went through a list in my head of the people I had interacted with in the past two weeks, from a friend who had recently returned from Taiwan to roommates who work in hospitals. I had myself pretty convinced it was possible, even though there have only been two cases of the disease diagnosed in Utah.
Thankfully, my fears were overblown and it turns out I did not have COVID-19, or any coronavirus for that matter. But here are some important things I learned on my way to figuring that out:
1. There isn’t a lot that distinguishes COVID-19 symptoms from those of the flu or a cold.
In my case, the telltale sign was that I had a sore throat and no cough. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and so the cough part is critical, while a sore throat is extremely rare. In addition to coughing, the major symptoms of COVID-19 include fever and shortness of breath. But if you have these symptoms and you live in Utah, it’s still much more likely that you have some other respiratory problem.
“At this time, there is no evidence of widespread COVID-19 transmission in Utah,” guidance from the Utah Department of Health reads. “It is NOT the intention of CDC or the UDOH that everyone with lower respiratory illness who tests negative for influenza be considered a possible COVID-19 patient.”
2. You can use Intermountain’s Connect Care app or other telehealth services to get evaluated by a medical professional from home.
I am lucky to have a family member who is an emergency room doctor with experience screening for the coronavirus. I was able to describe my symptoms over the phone and get her advice. Once I had established with some certainty that I didn’t have COVID-19, I went to urgent care to get tested for strep throat, which was more likely given my condition. If you think you have the coronavirus and your symptoms are mild, Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health both recommend you manage the illness at home and call to give advanced notice before visiting any health care facilities.
3. Testing for COVID-19 is not available to everyone.
On Friday March 6, President Donald Trump said “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” But that wasn’t true; the only way to get a COVID-19 test is if a doctor prescribes it. Monday during a White House briefing, Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, said that a total of 2.1 million tests have been produced and shipped to hospitals and private labs, and the expectation is that 4 million tests will be produced by the end of the week. However, it is impossible to know how many of those tests are being used because testers are not required to report back to the federal government.
In my case, even if I had been exhibiting all the right symptoms, i.e., a cough and shortness of breath in addition to my fever, I probably would not have been tested. Nearly 100 people have been tested in Utah so far, said Jenny Johnson, public information officer with the Utah Department of Health.
“Not everyone who wants to be tested will or even should be right now,” said Johnson. “We understand this can be frustrating for folks.”
Johnson said health care providers are still focusing on testing patients who are most at risk. Utah Department of Health guidelines say tests will be provided for people whose symptoms are severe, like if they have confirmed pneumonia for example, or if their symptoms are mild and they meet one of two criteria: 1) They recently traveled to an affected country, or 2) they have had contact with another lab-confirmed patient.
“After all, it’s still cold and flu season,” Johnson added.
4. The Utah Department of Health has a helpline for the coronavirus, but it didn’t help me.
I called the 1-800-456-7707 hotline listed on the Utah Department of Health website multiple times and repeatedly got a message that said, “All circuits are busy. Please try your call again later.” Johnson said the department is looking into the error. In the meantime, answers to basic questions can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov, or at the CDC’s website, coronavirus.gov.
5. There are probably more people who have the coronavirus than we know about.
More than 700 people in the United States have been diagnosed with COVID-19. But on Saturday, FDA commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, said that only 1,583 people in the U.S. had been tested for COVID-19 through tests from the CDC. Meanwhile, South Korea is testing about 10,000 people per day. At the moment, people with mild symptoms are being discouraged from going to the hospital, and so it’s possible that there are more cases in the U.S. that have not been confirmed.
6. Staying home from work when you are sick is a good idea.
Because I thought I might have the coronavirus, I was extra cautious about staying home from work. Some workplace cultures promote pushing through exhaustion and not letting sickness slowdown output, but that attitude can put others at risk. If anything good has come from the coronavirus panic, it’s that it has reinforced the basic idea that when you are sick, you should avoid interacting with other people, no matter what symptoms you have. Offices that support working from home can have a positive impact in helping stem the spread of illnesses.
7. There’s no harm in washing your hands.
Thinking I might have the coronavirus also made me hyper-aware of everything I was touching and how I might spread germs to the roommates I share a house with. I was extra careful about washing my hands and disinfecting things like door knobs, sink handles and the kitchen appliances. I realize these are good practices but things I probably would not have done if I thought I had a common cold.
8. Having some supplies at home would have been nice.
A week ago, I was laughing at people going to Costco to stock up on supplies like it was the end of the world. But after about two days holed up at home, I ran out of good food to eat. Luckily, I didn’t have to do a 14-day quarantine. The experience made me want to prepare a decent supply of food just in case I do get really sick some day. I also realized that I didn’t have a thermometer, which would have been useful for tracking my temperature and communicating my condition to doctors.
9. I am not afraid of the coronavirus.
I am 26 years old and healthy overall. Even when I thought I might have the coronavirus, I was never worried that I would be seriously harmed, much less that I would need to be hospitalized or that I could die. As communities, we should focus our resources on protecting those who are most vulnerable, including the elderly. As for the rest of us, we should probably calm down.