By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service
BLADENSBURG, Md. (CNS) — Like journalists all over the United States, I’m self-isolating and working remotely from my home in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
I’ve also had to self-quarantine at my house, because I’ve likely been exposed to COVID-19.
I say likely, because I don’t have scientific proof, nor does my housemate — who experienced symptoms of the illness — meaning neither one of us met the criteria to be tested for it.
My journey, I’m sure, is familiar to others throughout the U.S.
In February, as more coronavirus cases were being reported and the situation in Italy worsened, leadership at my news organization, Catholic News Service, began to look at how our operation would function if the entire staff at the Washington headquarters worked remotely. We examined our technology and the necessary preparations we’d need.
We thought, while we still had time, we should conduct a test. A day where the entire staff worked from home, to troubleshoot any problems that arose.
Before that test was scheduled, the outbreak in Italy worsened, forcing our colleagues in the CNS Rome bureau to institute a mandatory work-from-home policy. It was decided we needed to arrange a dry run at the Washington headquarters for March 11.
March 11 ended up being more than a dry run. As we were conducting our system test remotely, the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak a pandemic and CNS leadership concluded the workforce would need to fully work from home within a few days.
It also was on that day that my housemate began to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.
I could hear his dry cough as I worked from home that day and by the time I concluded my CNS duties, he told me how poorly he was feeling, describing body aches and periodic fluctuation of hot sweats and chills.
I could see that his skin color was beet red with beads of sweat on his forehead. I instinctively went over and felt his forehead to check for fever, which he clearly had.
It also was the moment I suspect I was exposed to the coronavirus.
I alerted my boss, who told me not to come into the office the next day, and on March 12, my housemate and I contacted health care professionals. He got an appointment that day, was examined and given no clear diagnosis. He was told they had no access to coronavirus tests, prescribed cough medicine and sent him home with no instructions about self-quarantine.
I also encountered confusion when I contacted the office of my primary physician. I was instructed to contact the MedStar system’s urgent care facility to see whether I could be tested. The people at that facility told me they couldn’t test me unless I met certain criteria and that I would first need to consult with a virtual doctor who could assess my exposure and possibility of contagion.
The virtual doctor was not covered by my insurance, so I called a health care worker at my doctor’s office again, who said my physician would call me back when he could, but also warned that by then they were overwhelmed with calls and appointments concerning the pandemic.
The health care employee at my doctor’s office also recommended I not come into contact with others, in abundance of caution, until I spoke with my physician, so that if I was exposed to the coronavirus and was in fact an asymptomatic carrier, I wouldn’t perpetuate the spread. She also suggested I give the same recommendation to my housemate, which I did.
Two days later, as my housemate’s condition got worse — but not bad enough for hospitalization — my doctor returned my call, did an over-the-phone consultation with me and came to the conclusion that my housemate likely had COVID-19 and recommended he contact his health care provider again to see whether he could be tested.
He told me that because I was asymptomatic at the time, he couldn’t order a test for me, unless my housemate tested positive. So, my housemate did contact his health care provider who, by then, also agreed that his symptoms matched those of COVID-19, but that his health was not critical at that time and since tests were so limited, he didn’t meet the criteria to receive one.
Both of us had been paying attention to the news and understood that the U.S. response effort to the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t yet made the provisions for widespread testing and so, there it was. We’d have to continue to self-quarantine and closely monitor his health and see if I developed symptoms myself.
Clearly we were not alone. Thousands, if not millions, of other Americans were in the same conundrum. Both of our doctors were frustrated by the lack of testing, which they saw as necessary to help limit the spread of the illness.
Fortunately, my housemate’s condition stabilized and his health eventually improved. I never did experience symptoms.
What I came to learn during my confinement is that you don’t have to have symptoms to be a carrier of COVID-19 and spread it to others.
Self-quarantine continued for the recommended two weeks, which in practicality wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined it would be, and I was fortunate to be able to work from home.
People all over the country are being asked to continue self-isolation and social-distancing measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, and I’m happy to do that too.
Though I strongly suspect I was exposed to the coronavirus and most likely was a carrier, I don’t know for sure.
I do hear that in a few weeks, blood testing for the antibodies may become available, which means I may be able to find out if I had it and what my risk of contagion is in the future.
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Muth is the multimedia editor at Catholic News Service. Follow him on Twitter: @chazmaniandevyl