My Whole Household Has COVID-19

“The thought of simply breathing in and out without coughing and reuniting with my children ... is goal enough. To—literally—live and let live will be enough.”

A photo of a framed family photograph, a nebulizer, a Hydro Flask, and bottles of pills on a desk
Bedside table these days (Courtesy of Deborah Copaken)

Updated at 5:44 ET on March 31, 2020.

I can pinpoint the exact moment I started feeling off. My partner, Will, and I were on a bike ride on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 18, to escape our apartment and get some exercise. This was back when leaving a New York City apartment to get some exercise was still okay, or at least that’s what we’d read, or at least that’s what we thought? If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that what is considered dogma today might change tomorrow.

Ten minutes into our bike ride, I was overcome by an intense fatigue. “I think I have to go back,” I said.

Back home, I felt chilled. Took my temperature: 99.1. I’m normally 97.1, but still, not a huge deal. We’d been so careful about wiping down doorknobs, washing our hands, and keeping everyone except for our family out of our apartment. I’d been ambiently worried enough that my 13-year-old son could be a silent carrier of the virus that I’d yanked him out of his public middle school and off the crowded subways four days before Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled the plug– (far too belatedly, in my opinion). I was getting over a urinary-tract infection, so my fever, I thought, must be from that.

That evening, I answered a bunch of Slack messages from work, finished a project for my boss, and picked at the dinner Will cooked. I was, unusually, not hungry. Neither was Will. Neither was my son, which is weird because normally he eats twice his body weight in food.

The next day my temperature was back down to 97.1, but the UTI had worsened. I called the nearby urgent-care center to see if they could prescribe me a new antibiotic, but no one was answering the phone. Figuring the place was overwhelmed with coronavirus calls, I walked over to the urgent care, opened the front door, and poked my head in. “Hi,” I said. “I’m so sorry to bother you at this time, but no one’s answering your phones.” I explained that the antibiotic course I’d just finished hadn’t worked, and I needed a different prescription.

“Do you have a temperature?” I remember the receptionist asking, as she walked over to the door and handed me a mask. Wait, what?

“No. I had a slight fever yesterday. Can I just leave a message for the doctor? I don’t want to come in.” I could hear a hacking cough coming from one of the exam rooms.

“If you need a new antibiotic, you’ll have to pee in a cup again.”

“But you guys already have my pee from last week! Use the same pee!”

“Sorry, we can’t treat you unless you meet with the doctor again and give us a new sample.”

You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. Why are we talking about pee during a shit storm? I weighed my options: either endure the UTI for who knows how long until this pandemic is over, which could lead to a kidney infection, which might eventually mean being forced to enter an overwhelmed, COVID-19-infected hospital anyway, or walk into this urgent care right now and possibly get exposed to the virus, but only from the two people coughing. I didn’t like this game of “Would you rather.”

I put on that mask and walked straight in––in my regular clothes, with no eye protection––where I stayed for a good 30 to 40 minutes until I could pee into a new cup, meet with the doctor, get a prescription, and go home. To say it was scary sitting there listening to all that coughing in the other rooms would be an understatement. The other patients sounded as if they should be on respirators, not in a neighborhood urgent care.

When I came home, I immediately stripped and washed all my clothes. That night, I got word that I did, indeed, have an ever-worsening UTI. (Duh.) A few hours later, Will came down with a fever and diarrhea and fell asleep watching Rachel Maddow, which he never does.

We isolated ourselves in separate rooms. My son stayed in his room, Will stayed in my other son’s room––that son, 24, had been volunteering for several months with Syrian refugees in Samos, Greece, and was self-quarantining in a nearby Airbnb––and me in the master bedroom, but not before I wiped down the entire apartment with Clorox wipes again. The next night, March 20, I cooked some rice and beans that no one ate.

Will stayed quite sick for three days, his temperature spiking and then retreating, but he never came down with a cough. Just the diarrhea, which is a rare COVID-19 symptom. We considered heading over to the drive-through test site that had just been set up on Staten Island, but by the time Will was feeling well enough to sit in a car for several hours, New York City had been declared a FEMA disaster zone. All masks and pieces of personal protective equipment were needed to treat the sick and dying, and the city put out a statement saying that people whose illnesses didn’t require hospitalization should not get tested. So we stayed home.

In bed sick (Courtesy of Deborah Copaken)

We missed each other’s company, though, so I threw caution to the wind, washed my hands, and invited Will to wash his hands and lie on the bed with me, as far from my body as possible, to listen to a recording of the 1977 Cornell Grateful Dead show while watching the sunset from our bedroom window. I kept it together until Jerry, in “Morning Dew,” sang, “Where have all the people gone, my honey? Where have all the people gone today?”

My fever spiked again on Sunday night. Monday morning, March 23, the fever was gone, so I decided to reorganize our spice cabinet. As one does in a lockdown. But I found I could no longer smell the spices. I had to make sure, when writing up new labels, not to mix up the herbs de Provence, the basil, and the oregano, all of which now looked and smelled exactly alike, which is to say they all smelled like nothing. (Doctors have begun observing a loss of smell and taste in some COVID-19 patients.) By the afternoon, I had a well-organized spice cabinet and a sore throat. Not a bad one, just a slightly annoying one.

By Tuesday afternoon, I was quite sick. I was now coughing a deep and scary dry, wheezing cough, just like the ones I’d heard in the urgent care a few days prior. My temperature was spiking and falling, spiking and falling; my throat was still sore; and I could not drink enough water to quench my thirst. My chest felt as if there were an anvil sitting on top of it. When I attempted to take a deep breath, I could not get enough air into the bottom of my lungs to fill them.

I sent a text message to my primary-care providers’ office through their telemedicine system. I made an appointment with a doctor to speak on the phone. Over the course of our 15-minute call, she asked many questions about my symptoms, about Will’s symptoms, about my son’s loss of appetite. She also heard my cough several times, and said, as I remember it, “That’s a COVID cough. You have to assume all three of you have it at this point. Just lay low until everyone’s symptoms are gone.”

“Can I get a test?” I said.

“No,” she said. “You can’t. Only essential workers. You don’t need one. I can tell just from listening to your cough and hearing your symptoms. When did you first start to feel ill?”

I told her about the bike ride.

The doctor became irritated. “You rode a bike? With viral load everywhere? Why?”

Hadn’t I read one or maybe several experts saying it was safe to go outside and exercise? “I thought it was okay to go out if you stayed six feet from others?”

“No,” she said. “Not in New York. Not right now.”

So nobody knows anything. Or some people know some things, but then facts catch up and prove them wrong. What an embarrassment, how unprepared this country is. We had time to right the plane before it crashed. But the pilot’s been too busy blaming the clouds and spouting lies over the loudspeaker. If I’m sick and can’t get a test, how do we even know that the attack rate in New York City is, as was recently reported, five times the norm? Maybe it’s 10. Maybe it’s 100. Who the hell knows? How many others are sheltering in place in my city right now, coughing on the down low because they can’t get tested? I want to be counted, goddamnit.

“Can my partner and I sleep in the same room again, now that we’re both sick?”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” said the doctor. “Your bodies need to get better. Keep your viral load from his and vice versa. Do you have enough rooms for all of you to self-isolate?”

“For now, yes,” I said, explaining how I have one child self-quarantining in an Airbnb in Brooklyn and now another, just evacuated from the Peace Corps, in an Airbnb in Washington, D.C. It’s been an expensive month.

The doctor told me to open up an account with Capsule, a prescription-delivery service, to keep my germs from infecting our local pharmacy. She’d send over a prescription for an inhaler and a nebulizer. The key thing, she told me, is to stay away from the hospitals unless absolutely necessary. There are no beds, even if I need one. And I could get sicker in a hospital than I would staying home.

These were not reassuring words to hear from a doctor.

The drugs and equipment would be delivered later that evening, but before they arrived, my cough and breathing had become so bad that Will barged into my room and said, “We need to make you a go bag.” I could barely get out of bed to go to the bathroom, much less contemplate what items I’d toss in a go bag, a bag to go to the hospital, a place I’d just been told by a doctor not to go.

“If it gets that bad, I won’t even notice if I don’t have my phone charger or extra underwear,” I said. My older children were each FaceTiming me from their own quarantines, but it suddenly hurt too much to talk.

FaceTiming my children who were self-isolating in Airbnbs elsewhere (Courtesy of Deborah Copaken)

A few hours later, the medications and the nebulizer arrived at my door via a brave delivery man who left the bag at the end of the hallway, smiled, waved, and then ran. “Wait, don’t I need to sign for that?” I shouted after him.

“That’s okay!” he said. “I’ll do it for you.”

I watched a YouTube video that explained how to use the nebulizer. Then I set up mine, squeezed the medicine into its chamber, turned it on, and suddenly … relief! For the first time all day, I could breathe. I could feel the bottom of my lungs again. Hallelujah.

But then my heart rate shot up. It got up to 144 beats per minute according to my Apple watch. I was dizzy with heartbeats. I’m prone to premature ventricular contractions––extra, abnormal heartbeats that begin in the ventricles and disrupt the heart’s regular rhythm––so I have to be careful. My doctor, after I texted the office about my heart rate, called at 8 p.m. and gave me her personal cellphone number in case of emergency.

It’s been three days since my COVID-19 diagnosis, nine days since that first rush of fatigue and slightly elevated temperature. My life is now centered on finding a balance between being able to breathe and not feeling like I’m going to pass out from a too-thrumming heartbeat. Periodically, I send photos of my Apple Watch heart monitor to my doctor, and she gives me advice on when to use the nebulizer next.

All in all––aside from the few hours when I couldn’t breathe and didn’t have the nebulizer; and when I passed out walking from the living room into my bedroom; and when I cough; and at night, when it all feels much worse, and my back aches from coughing, so I can’t sleep––I’ve been okay. Groggy and irritable and down six pounds, but okay. I’ve had worse colds and flus, and I’m hoping I’ll still be able to say this when I’m all better. My biggest fear now is getting sicker and needing to enter either a too-crowded hospital at the viral peak.*

Using the nebulizer (Courtesy of Deborah Copaken)

I spoke with my daughter yesterday morning from her Airbnb in D.C. She’s not sure where to go after her 14 days of quarantine are over. She’d planned on staying in her post in Cameroon for two years but was able to complete only six months before the emergency evacuation, and she’s not allowed to return. As a Peace Corps volunteer, she’s not eligible for unemployment. She is, at 23, broke, heartbroken, and homeless, which is another reason I’d better not die right now. My son is going stir-crazy all alone in his Airbnb. I haven’t been able to hug him since he got back from Greece. Should he come home on March 31 or pay for another week of the Airbnb, given our illnesses? How long will we remain sick? The World Health Organization says two weeks for a mild case, and three to six weeks for a more serious bout. But that’s just the accepted dogma right now. Tomorrow, those numbers could change.

Part of me wants, as soon as we’re better, to grab my three kids and my partner and escape someplace remote, but where? COVID-19 is everywhere. I guess the thought of simply breathing in and out without coughing and reuniting with my children, wherever that might be, is goal enough. To––literally––live and let live will be enough. Because in the middle of writing that last sentence, I learned that an old friend has been felled by COVID-19. Rest in peace, Mark Blum. I’m so sorry we didn’t do more to flatten the curve while we still could.

Trying to remain optimistic, I have sent an email to researchers at Mount Sinai, who are searching for antibody-rich plasma from those of us who catch COVID-19 and make it through to the other side, to treat critically ill patients—a protocol that showed some promise in China. I definitely, certainly, 100 percent plan to give my antibodies as soon as I can. If my illness can help someone else be less ill, then it is my moral duty to make that happen, just as staying home right now is our moral duty to save others. “We must love one another or die,” W. H. Auden wrote. I read that poem to my older kids after 9/11, and I plan to read it to them again when we’re all reunited.

I received an email back from Mount Sinai asking for my full name, date of birth, symptoms, date of symptom onset, and last day of symptoms.

“Still sick,” I responded. But hopefully not for much longer.

*This article has been updated to remove an erroneous reference to the field hospital at the Jacob Javits Center. It is an overflow hospital for patients not being treated for COVID-19, not a COVID-19 hospital.