BOISE — Getting COVID-19 is like rolling the dice.
Plenty of people have been infected and never even knew they were sick. Other patients only feel like they have a mild cold, while some experience extreme symptoms ranging from fatigue, coughs, shortness of breath and fever, to bizarre side effects such as losing their sense of taste and smell. Many people who get the disease eventually recover, but some need to be hospitalized or put on a ventilator, and the long-term effects of the novel coronavirus are still unknown.
Nearly 140,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 five months after the pandemic hit the United States in full force, outpacing the number of Americans who died in World War I. As of Tuesday, 122 Idahoans have died from the disease and nearly 15,300 have either tested positive or have been counted as a probable case without a test.
For Boise-based maritime lawyer Stephen Smith, COVID-19 was a hellish nightmare that has yet to end months after he caught COVID-19 traveling for work across multiple countries on the Pacific Rim in February. He was bedridden for 17 days and is still plagued by brain fog, issues with his vision, pounding headaches and strange swelling in one of his ankles long after the worst of the disease is over.
On the other hand, University of Idaho student Kaitlyn Lindholm, who is home for the summer in Boise, caught the virus earlier this month and is mostly on the mend after nearly two weeks of coughing and some fatigue. Unlike Smith who can pinpoint his illness to his business trips, Lindholm cannot be sure where she picked it up because she has been careful throughout the pandemic to avoid going inside stores and to keep her distance from crowds.
Both Boiseans had the same illness, but with wildly different symptoms, recovery times and means of infection. The only thing they have in common is their diagnosis and geographic location, but they are now linked by their firsthand contact with the pandemic sweeping the globe.
AN EARLY CASE
Smith, 64, realized he was sick in a crowded Boise Starbucks at the end of February.
He had recently returned from back-to-back business trips to the Pacific, where he visited six destinations, including Guam, Seoul, Manila and Singapore, but hadn’t noticed any illness until Feb. 27. A few minutes into his meeting that day, he felt so bad he cut the meeting short and immediately went home to sleep for 16 hours straight.
For the next five days, he suffered intense digestive issues, extreme exhaustion, a fever with hot flashes and strange hallucinations. He said he has had to rely on his family to recall some of the details of his illness because he can’t remember some of his own actions.
“I was somewhat violent, but luckily my kid knocked me down because I thought I was fighting a 300-pound monster,” he said. “I was screaming and doing all kinds of stuff I don’t normally do.”
On March 4, nine days before Idaho’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, he contacted his primary care doctor and told him about his symptoms, who asked him about his recent travel. Smith said his doctor was certain from what he experienced and his trips overseas he likely had the disease, but he was not able to get a test because testing was extremely limited and because he did not have a cough.
In the days he was confined to his bed, Smith said he experienced fatigue worse than he has ever felt in his life.
“It’s hard for anybody to understand,” he said. “It just feels terrible. My brain wouldn’t work, which obviously isn’t a good thing for what I do. I was having trouble completing sentences. It’s more than just getting a cold. Usually I’m pretty acute in my thinking, but I couldn’t complete thoughts.
A ‘SURPRISING’ DIAGNOSIS
Lindholm, 21, has been taking COVID-19 seriously since the beginning.
She wears a mask in public and has avoided going inside anywhere unless it is absolutely necessary, but she tested positive for the disease the week after visiting Stanley for the Fourth of July. Lindholm doesn’t know exactly where she could have picked it up, but she wonders if it could have come from going inside the gas station in town, passing some hikers on a trail or eating outside on a patio. Or it could have come from somewhere else entirely.
“Those are all possibilities of where I could have gotten it,” she said in a phone interview while she was quarantining in her bedroom.
Her symptoms started with a sore throat while she was visiting her boyfriend’s family in McCall a few days after the holiday. Because her boyfriend’s family is high-risk, she left immediately to go get tested in Boise and it came back positive.
“I am one of those people who believe in it and am quite careful,” she said. “I have been going on trips, but I have been wearing masks and have avoided going in places. People said they are surprised I got it because I was pretty careful. It’s a bit shocking now even to have it still.”
Lindholm is home for summer break from college and planned to spend the months between semesters working at her two jobs to save money before returning to college in Moscow, but the pandemic and catching COVID-19 threw a wrench in her plans. While she has been sick, she has been able to complete her work as a virtual assistant, but she has been unable to go to work at her other traditional part-time job while recovering.
There is also the question of how to quarantine when you don’t live by yourself. Lindholm is staying with her mom and her brother for the summer, so to avoid infecting them, she’s been confined to her bedroom or their back porch nearly all of the time. While her mom recovers from a broken wrist, her brother has been cooking all of her food and leaving it out for her so she does not expose them.
Her cough has receded and she is feeling better, but she is worries about whether she infected others.
“My advice is for young people to take it seriously because you can give it to your parents, and nothing is worth giving it to your parents and going through that stress,” she said. “No fun activity is worth that.”
IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Several physicians agree Smith had COVID-19, but he is not among those who tested positive.
By the time tests were available enough in March for Smith to get tested, he no longer was shedding virus in his nasal cavity and tested negative. An antibody test he took, which has now been taken off the market, was “inconclusive.” But, all of his symptoms and his travel say he got the virus, according to his doctors.
And it’s not over.
Smith is what is known as a “long-hauler,” or someone who has COVID-19 symptoms and impacts months after contracting the disease. This phenomenon is not well-tracked or understood, but social media support groups for people with these long-running, debilitating symptoms have drawn in thousands of members.
After Smith recovered, he had several weeks of good health, but then the shortness of breath came back in a minor way and the brain fog crept in again. A doctor also discovered a macular hole in his eye, which severely impacts his vision. He does not know for sure it came from COVID-19, but he had an eye exam shortly before getting sick and it was not there, but once his vision worsened significantly right after his illness it appeared.
His left ankle, the site of an old mountain biking injury, has also turned strange colors and blood is pooling under his toenails.
“I’ve had it looked at by the best vascular surgeon in Boise,” he said. “I’ve had excellent care in Boise and the basic response is, ‘We’ve never seen that before, but it’s COVID-19 and it could do anything.’”
Smith has been corresponding with people all over the country suffering from long-hauler symptoms, and he counts himself lucky that what he is battling has not slowed him down from doing most of what he enjoys, unlike some others he has talked to. But, he still wants his life to go back to normal.
“It doesn’t stop me from doing things, but I sure wish (COVID-19) would knock it off,” he said. “Some people it just completely affects their whole life, but I’m getting tired of this. People don’t understand, I don’t think, that it’s not just over when it’s over.”