Oregonians Share Their COVID-19 Stories
You’ve tested positive for COVID-19. Now what?
Sure, there are official CDC quarantine guidelines and a new state hotline and website for people who test positive. You should consult both. But sometimes it’s good to hear from another human. These Oregonians share what was hard and what helped them get through.
Musician, student: Positive diagnosis felt like ‘letting the team down’
Name: Tyson Bittrich
Variant: probably delta.
Days in isolation: 13
Most useful coping strategies: living on separate floors, buying a pulse oximeter.
Tyson Bittrich, 40, is a musician who’s studying renewable energy engineering at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Wilsonville.
He started feeling cruddy on the Tuesday after Halloween. He went to get a test on Thursday with his partner, but it took two days to get the results.
“Saturday morning I woke up and I couldn’t smell my coffee. I couldn’t smell my oatmeal. And sure enough, my results came back Saturday afternoon that I was a positive case,” he said.
Bittrich says he’d been doing all the right things: wearing a mask; getting vaccinated twice with Pfizer.
“I guess there was a sense of surprise and also guilt or shame or something,” Bittrich said.
“When you test positive for something like this, it’s not just like a: ‘Oh, wow. I’m in harm’s way.’ It’s: ‘Oh, wow, I’m letting the team down.’”
Before testing positive, Bittrich and his partner were cooking, eating, sleeping, even practicing yoga together. But when he tested negative, they wore masks whenever they got close. Friends offered to put his partner up for the duration, but they decided to stay together and distance, especially because there are two floors in their apartment.
“I stayed in the top floor and she stayed in the bottom floor. Since I was feeling fairly crummy, she took care of me. I would have not made it through as well without her of course.”
They separated their toiletries in the bathroom. She cooked and when they ate together he sat 15 feet away. They separated their toothbrushes, but didn’t sanitize the door handles in the apartment, figuring the greater risk was from breathing in aerosolized virus, rather than via contaminated surfaces.
He contacted any friends and bandmates that he thought he might have infected, but hasn’t heard that anybody else caught COVID-19 from him. After testing positive at Zoomcare, Bittrich talked online to an advice nurse.
“The advice I got from the nurse, which I followed, was just keep track of two vitals, high fever and your oxygen saturation,” he said.
He bought a pulse oximeter, delivered to the house by Target for about $30, to keep track of his oxygen levels. He took his temperature and measured his oxygen saturation three times a day.
“I didn’t get my taste back until Thanksgiving, but it gave me peace of mind, right? That I’m not doing the wrong thing by not going into urgent care,” he said.
Bittrich’s partner did not get the virus, even though they were in close proximity before he started feeling sick. Their theory is that she’d received a booster three weeks earlier, so she had high levels of antibodies to ward off infection.
“The times I felt the scariest were the days when my lungs felt the heaviest and head felt like an over-inflated balloon.”
Registered nurse: ‘No way I could have gone back... after five days’
Name: Natasha Schwartz
Days in isolation: 20
Advice: Take the time you need to recover — five days won’t be enough for some health workers. Use a primary care doctor or immediate care/urgent care clinic, rather than the emergency department. An Apple watch can serve as a heart rate and oxygen-saturation monitor.
Schwartz is an acute care nurse at Oregon Health & Science University, working in the emergency general surgery unit. She lives with her partner, a medical student at OHSU, and has been vaccinated and boosted. Schwartz says she’s spent the last two years limiting her social contact to avoid the virus.
Schwartz believes she was likely exposed at work by a patient or co-worker. Until recently, OHSU only tested patients on her unit for COVID-19 if they were showing symptoms, she said.
Her symptoms started on Dec. 23. At first, it was just a headache.
“I get migraines, so I thought it was just another migraine,” Schwartz said, “and then as my shift progressed, I developed some congestion.”
After her shift she got a rapid PCR test, and through that OHSU’s occupational health program found out she was positive for COVID-19.
She felt angry, defeated, and guilty that she’d gotten the virus in spite of wearing a mask and PPE at work and being so careful to protect herself from exposure over the last two years.
“I was at work and I knew that I could have been contagious, you know, two days prior to that. Just thinking about potentially exposing my co-workers and patients to COVID really was the biggest thing,’ she said.
Understanding how much more contagious the omicron variant is than previous variants has helped her with those feelings.
Schwartz called her unit and let the charge nurse and her manager know she’d tested positive, and asked her to share the news with the people she’d interacted with.
“Christmas was coming up and people were going to probably go see family members and you know elderly relatives and I just didn’t want people to potentially infect their family members over the holidays,” she said.
She canceled her own in-person Christmas with her parents and video chatted over Zoom instead.
Schwartz takes a medication that suppresses her immune system and is considered immunocompromised. At home, she monitored her heart rate and oxygen levels using an Apple watch, kept track of her temperature, and took Tylenol.
She experienced a wide range of symptoms: fever, body aches, severe fatigue and shortness of breath. Five days after she tested positive, her symptoms worsened and she decided to see a doctor. She was too sick to walk around the house or prepare food for herself.
“My heart rate was getting really elevated and I was just having so much physical pain from the body aches. I just really wasn’t able to move much,” she said.
To avoid a long wait in the emergency department, she emailed her primary care doctor and ended up getting seen at an immediate care facility. There, she was prescribed monoclonal antibodies, and treated through an at-home infusion service.
“I think the hardest part of it was getting access to care and the fear that, if I needed to go to the hospital, the system is just really overwhelmed. Even as a nurse, I may not have access to the care I need,” she said.
Schwartz said after three weeks, she’s mostly recovered and getting ready to return to work. She believes the antibody treatment helped.
However, she still has lingering symptoms. She wears a heart monitor to track her heart rate, which is still elevated.
Her partner only had symptoms for a few days and has no residual symptoms.
Schwartz says her doctors recommended that she quarantine for a full 20 days because of her compromised immune system, which might lead a person to shed the virus for a longer period of time.
She’s returning to work. New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow hospitals with staffing shortages and high patient demand to return COVID-19 positive staff to work after just five days of quarantine, with or without a negative test.
Those guidelines have been condemned by nursing organizations, including the Oregon Nurses Association where Schwartz sits on the board.
Schwartz says OHSU is requiring a negative antigen test first from anyone returning five to 10 days after their symptoms start, an additional step she finds reassuring.
But after her experience with COVID-19, she’s concerned about the pressure other nurses may face to work while they are still sick.
“Even if my symptoms had improved and I wasn’t contagious, there’s no way I could have gone back to safely taking care of patients after five days,” she said.
Her advice to other nurses is to take the time they need to recover and to accept their physical limitations.
Educator, mother: ‘What we realized we needed was loads and loads of rest’
Name: Aarti Kamalahasan
Days in quarantine: five
Advice: Get your kids their boosters as soon as you can.
Kamalahasan is an instructional coach for a large school district in Washington County. She’s recently remarried and lives with her husband and a 22 year-old daughter who works in health care. Her son, who is in high school, splits his time between living with her and with his dad.
Kamalahasan and her children have a history of asthma, so she’s been afraid COVID-19 could hit them all particularly hard. She got a booster for herself, and pushed to get both her children boosters in mid-December, as soon as they qualified.
After Christmas, her son got a Snapchat message from a school friend who had tested positive for COVID-19. Within a few days, that had snowballed into five or six friends who’d all tested positive.
Kamalahasan spent several days hunting for at-home antigen tests after both her son and daughter started experiencing possible symptoms — exhaustion and a scratchy throat — but was unable to find them anywhere.
They decided to assume they were positive until they knew otherwise.
“Tests were hard to come by, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We finally got both of them into their pediatrician and they tested positive. And then I started showing symptoms later that day.”
Kamalahasan usually works in-person, supporting and coaching other teachers. She got permission to shift to online-only work.
She went through a rollercoaster of symptoms: serious nausea, chills, a headache and body aches, and shortness of breath.
“I kept telling myself, this is mild,” she said.
Kamalahasan says they stuck to her son’s parenting schedule, so he quarantined at his dad’s house. Her adult daughter, who usually lives with her, also ended up quarantined at a separate home.
Neither got as sick as she did, but not being able to see her children while they were sick was the hardest part of the experience. She’d try to listen to how their breathing sounded over the phone.
“I was just not able to sleep at all, constantly texting, calling, snapchatting. My kids were like, ‘mommy we’re okay.’ I’m like, okay, but I’m going to call you again in an hour.”
They were all able to manage their symptoms with over the counter pain medication, lots of hydration, and their inhalers. “Mainly what we realized we needed was loads and loads of rest,” she said.
Ultimately, knowing her children had their boosters was a major relief. She wasn’t afraid they’d wind up hospitalized.
“Science had my back,” she said.
She was able to finally get antigen tests from Walmart and all three have now tested negative.
Family doctor warns of long-term effects and risk of re-infection
Name: Eva McCarthy
Variant wave: wild-type (original)
Days in quarantine: 21
Advice: Accept that it may take time to fully recover and be ready to adapt your routines.
McCarthy practices family medicine in Sublimity, Oregon.
She had a mild case of COVID-19 in the relatively early days of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, in November 2020.
McCarthy was symptomatic for about a week with sinus congestion and upper respiratory symptoms.
At the time, there were much longer isolation guidelines in place, so she had to wait a full 21 days before returning to in-person work.
“In the meantime I did telemedicine from home and received a lot of pies and chicken soup on my porch, which I couldn’t taste but were very thoughtful,” she said.
Even though McCarthy considers herself lucky to have had had only a mild case, she says she still hasn’t fully recovered her sense of taste and smell.
“Speaking with co-workers who are more recently recovering from COVID, there is a general consensus of surprise over how long the alteration in taste and smell has lasted and how it has changed the things we used to enjoy. For example, I no longer like cilantro or sour foods. Lemon, lime, and orange flavors also have a bad aftertaste and my tolerance of spice has gone way down (and I’m Korean so that is sad),” she said.
“I also hear from colleagues and patients that brain fog and fatigue is real and it has affected work performance for some.”
McCarthy wishes she’d received better guidance on what to expect, and how long symptoms can last for some people.
Everyone’s recovery will be slightly different, and in her experience, it helps to focus on the things you can control. Change what you eat to accommodate your new taste buds, or spend more time walking and stretching rather than jumping right back into high intensity workouts.
“I also want people to remain fully vigilant of the potential to get re-infected as I have personally known people who have had it again after being fully vaccinated,” she said. “While I hope that I will not get re-infected and have been boosted, I am not ruling it out and I don’t think my taste buds could tolerate another round of COVID.”
This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.