Beginning in the early days of 2020, the most immediate health concern in the world has been the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States alone there have been more than 6.5 million cases and over 194,000 who have lost their lives to the disease.
The numbers are staggering, overwhelming and almost beyond the ability to comprehend. Many have compared the pandemic to war, and justly so because at this point COVID-19 has claimed close to half the number of casualties (418,500) the country suffered in World War II. And these numbers increase daily, with no clear end in sight.
But even given (and perhaps because of) these staggering numbers, there still exists a surreal quality to it all in some people’s minds. Many believe these numbers are inflated, and there are still some who believe the pandemic a politically motivated hoax. The vast numbers seen in New York (23,750), for instance, seem to be a world away and less immediate to some in different states. But when the virus touches our own friends and neighbors, the people we pass on our own streets or in gas stations and stores, the reality of it hits home, even among those who were taking the recommended precautions.
“Toward the end of August, I developed a cough,” said Neil Wright. Wright, who is the Greenup County Coroner and owns Wright’s Funeral Home in Greenup, was used to following precautions, but on all fronts he is considered “essential,” so staying at home was seldom an option for him. Wright laughed about it, and said he assumed it was simply the “Ohio Valley Crud” or sinus issues many experience in the tristate area. But the cough persisted, and he didn’t experience the accompanying sinus issues such as drainage.
“That went on for a couple of days,” Wright said, adding that at that point it wasn’t something he consciously noticed most of the time. “But I began to feel there was something that wasn’t right about it. It was a cough that didn’t produce anything, like a sinus-related cough usually does.”
Then, when he was talking to a couple of his friends, Wright said they asked him a question that made him become concerned. “We were talking, and one of them said ‘You aren’t COVID, are you?’ I told them I didn’t think so,” Wright said. But the friendly banter combined with the unusual cough made him begin to consider the possibility.
“That was on a Wednesday,” Wright said. “On Thursday, the cough persisted, but I still didn’t feel bad. On Friday that changed. I knew something definite was going on, and I knew I was sick.”
At that point Wright said he called his wife and told her he wasn’t feeling well. “She asked if I had a temperature, and I told her no I didn’t. I had even recently gone through the health screening to go into a hospital, and that hadn’t shown me having a temperature,” Wright said. “And I went through the temperature screening at the courthouse and wasn’t showing a temperature.”
‘Drenched with sweat’
Wright went to bed on Friday night much earlier than usual.
“I was drenched with sweat,” he said. But surprisingly, his temperature was still within a normal range. “That went on the entire night. So, when I rolled out of bed, the first thing I did was go to the KDMC Outreach in Russell to get tested. Within four hours I had my results that I was COVID-19 positive.”
He was surprised at how quick the results came back from the throat swab test, because he had been expecting to wait at least 24 hours for the results.
Wright said that fortunately he had a separate living space where he could completely isolate himself.
“And I hadn’t been around a lot of people before, or so I thought. But the next morning I got a phone call from a very nice lady at the Greenup County Health Department,” Wright said. “She asked me what my symptoms were and who I had been around. I asked her what she meant because I am always ‘around’ a lot of people. Well, she gave me a specific footage and amount of time to go by for contact tracing.”
When he answered the questions, Wright said it was at that point it hit him and brought into stark focus just how serious the pandemic was.
“Here I am laying balled up and sick, feeling like someone had beat me with a wiffleball bat, and my muscles hurt constantly,” Wright said.
Unlike many who have had the disease, he said he never experienced the shortness of breath, but his entire body ached and he was sweating constantly.
“That went for four days straight. I sweat so much my hair was wet like I had just stepped out of the shower. I would get up and walk through the house, and then I’d be wore out for two hours,” Wright said. “I had no energy, and I didn’t want to eat. But I still had taste at the time.”
“But it was an eye opener when I talked to the lady from the health department,” Wright said. “When I talked to her about who I had been around, it shocked me. With every word, every name, that came out of my mouth, those people got quarantined.”
That realization made him think of the responsibility you have to everyone you have been around, regardless of who was or wasn’t wearing a mask.
“Have you touched someone or been within 6 feet of them for a period of 10 minutes? What restaurants and public places have you been in?” Wright said he was asked. “And when they start asking these detailed questions, you realize that it is something you don’t normally think of. Do we really remember how many people’s hands we shake during a normal day? We never pay attention to whom we slap on the back and say hello.”
In Wright’s case, he discovered there had been about a dozen solid interactions that might have resulted in him being an unwilling spreader of the disease.
“I immediately called those people and told them I was COVID-19 positive. A lot of people try to hide it,” Wright said. “But I don’t think that’s the way to fix anything. When you have a pandemic like the one we’re in now, something that started half a world away and is now on my doorstep in Greenup County, Kentucky, we have to do better than that.
“I called everyone on my list and told them, and said I was sorry. It’s terrible that you have to apologize for being friendly, for shaking someone’s hand or helping them out of the car. I’m on the fire department, too,” Wright said. “And I’m the coroner, so I’m around people all of the time. But luckily during the time I was sick we didn’t have any funerals at the funeral home, or it was something someone else could handle. I’m grateful for the cushion I had between me and most people, because the last thing I would ever want was to make someone else sick.”
Added Wright: “It could have been a lot worse. Because no matter how bad you think it is, it can always get worse.”
Health before politics
The health department recommends a 10-day quarantine from the first symptom on positive cases, but Wright said he isolated himself for 14 days to be sure he was over the disease. He has tested negative and been cleared, but the experience, which he says is the sickest he has ever felt, has changed the way he interacts on a daily basis.
“When I go out, I wear an N95 mask now,” Wright said. “Especially if I am going to be within 6 feet. The reason for this is because I want to make sure that if there is even a slight chance — even after they have told me there isn’t — that I might still be contagious, I don’t want to pass it on to anyone else. I would never want to make anyone sick, and that’s how you have to think about it.
“I was one of the type that believed it was real when this all started,” Wright said. “But I didn’t believe it was nearly as potent as everyone said it was.”
With the constant media coverage and frequently conflicting reports, Wright said he believed that a large degree of it had been politicized. “And a certain amount of it has been,” he said. “And I was the type to think I wasn’t going to get it, and that it would all go away after Election Day. But I was wrong. It’s sad to say that people have drawn lines, because public health should always come before politics.”
Wright said the best advice he can give is to listen to the experts, the people whose job it is to keep everyone safe.
“These people are professionals, and it is their job to know. And we need to listen to them,” Wright said. “My daughter is a doctor, and she treats COVID-19 patients every day. She tells me, ‘Dad, this is real.’ We need to listen to her and people like her who know what it is and what it does to people.”