Two women say they are recovering from the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. They had the telltale symptoms of a cough and fever. One of them had a more severe case that included shortness of breath associated with the virus and a “raging headache.”
Both women spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity. They wanted to tell their stories because, they say, Islanders should know there are more cases out there than the eight confirmed cases as of Monday that qualified for testing at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
“I didn’t know for sure if I had it,” said the 56-year-old Vineyard Haven woman who is now feeling much better — good enough to have a glass of wine. Her symptoms never reached a severe state, but she was lethargic and achy for about a week to 10 days. “I was never sick enough to be tested,” she said.
Her Edgartown friend, who is 48, is also recovering from a slightly more severe case, but one that never got acute. She had a fever as high as 102 degrees. “I had my first symptom on the 17th [of March]. It was a pounding, raging headache,” she said. Then two days of fever and aches that landed her in the emergency department. The hospital wouldn’t test her.
“I was non-tested, presumed positive,” she was told by the hospital. “They told me to go home and quarantine.”
Both women have been in touch with Maura Valley, the Tisbury health agent who is the point person for the Island’s boards of health. In an email to The Times, Valley confirmed she has been in touch with people who likely have symptoms, but aren’t sick enough to be tested.
“I have spoken with three individuals who have symptoms but were not tested. Two of them were referred to other health agents for follow-up as they were not Tisbury residents,” she wrote. “At this point the individuals are treated the same as those testing positive and asked to isolate with close contacts asked to quarantine for 14 days. I believe that individuals presenting with symptoms but not meeting testing guidelines are being advised by their doctors to self-isolate. We are working with the hospital to establish a reporting protocol to better capture the number of people who might have the illness without having a positive test result.”
While the two women say there’s no doubt in their minds they had the coronavirus, the lack of a test has raised doubt in others and left them frustrated.
“At work, they said, since you weren’t tested you really don’t know,” the Edgartown woman said. “Well, I didn’t need a pregnancy test to know I was pregnant twice. It shocked me. They were unsupportive.”
Lack of available tests in the United States has been an issue since the outbreak arrived in February. According to the Washington Post, a combination of resistance to using tests produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) and delays in getting private companies in the U.S. involved in producing the tests were to blame.
“I was told they need the tests for first responders, medical staff, and people coming in on ambulances,” the Edgartown woman said. “This is our community they’re holding out for, so the sting wasn’t so bad. They were saving the tests for people who are literally on the frontlines.”
Both women say they are convinced they had COVID-19 because they both had what has emerged as a symptom. They both lost their senses of smell and taste, which is scientifically known as anosmia.
“A loss of smell or a loss of taste is something that we’re looking into,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the head of WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonoses unit, said on a briefing call with reporters on Monday, March 23, according to STAT, a healthcare website affiliated with the Boston Globe. “We are reaching out to a number of countries and looking at the cases that have already been reported to see if this is a common feature. We don’t have the answer to that yet.”
Though widely reported since that call, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control still lists only fever, cough, and shortness of breath as the symptoms of the disease.
When the woman from Vineyard Haven finally called her doctor’s office, she spoke with a nurse. She told the nurse the symptoms and when she mentioned anosmia, the nurse said, “Yup that sounds like it.” She was told she was not sick enough to “waste a test” and treated her symptoms the way she would treat a bad cold — Tylenol, rest, hydration. “I think there’s a lot of people like that,” she said. “It’s really dangerous for some people. I’ve been scared at some points.” She has stayed home, self-isolating, and only ventured into the woods to walk her dogs when she felt able. “I hope that’s what other people are doing who feel like they have symptoms.”
Both the Vineyard Haven woman and Edgartown woman say the senses of taste and smell have not returned. Other symptoms have gone away as they move beyond the 14 days when they initially felt sick.
So where did they get it? Neither is 100 percent sure.
One of them has a daughter who lives in New Orleans and attended Mardi Gras. The day after she attended Mardi Gras, the daughter traveled with her mom to California to see another daughter. The daughter who was at the popular and congested Mardi Gras, which has since made New Orleans a hotbed of the disease, never showed symptoms. On a flight back to Boston, the woman says a man who sat next to her coughed incessantly during the trip.
“Nobody knows. It’s hard to know where you pick these things up,” she said. It just as easily could have been one of the dozens of college students who returned to the Island in early March or the families that traveled during winter break the last week of February, she said. That’s why it bothers her that year-round residents are pointing the finger at seasonal residents coming to the Vineyard.
“We want to think we’re safe,” she said of the Island. “It’s here. We need to contain it and take it seriously. Don’t blame other people.”
The Edgartown woman travels for her job. She thinks she was exposed to the virus during an event where others have later reported getting sick. Any more details would reveal her identity, but suffice it to say, that’s only a hunch. “I’m back and forth on airplanes all the time for my job,” she said.
The Vineyard Haven woman said she knows three other people, including her Edgartown friend, who are symptomatic, but not sick enough to be tested. “Knock on wood. I feel like I’m fine. It’s a weird illness,” she said.
The Edgartown woman feels like she’s out of the woods, too. “It was a triple-headed monster,” she said of her battle with coronavirus. “I was not able to get out of bed for a while … This just knocked me right out. It was brutal.”