Kola: I had been following the virus really closely, but it felt like a thing that was coming rather than a thing that was here.
James Hamblin: How long after the wedding did you start to think something might be wrong?
Kola: I flew back to San Francisco on March 3, and I was fine until March 6. That night I started to feel a little bit off. I had a mild fever, but at that point, the possibility that it might have been COVID seemed extremely unlikely to me.
Mahajan: I returned to Providence on March 3, and I returned to teaching on the fourth. At the end of those few days, I started to think I’d come down with a flu of some kind. I had body aches and fatigue.
Hamblin: At what point did it get bad enough for you to seek testing and care?
Kola: Over the weekend, it gradually got a little bit worse. That Monday, I tried to pack my dishwasher and tidy up my kitchen a little bit, and it felt like I’d done a workout. So that day, I had a videochat with a doctor who said that she thought that she could hear pneumonia when I was speaking to her.
She said that the next day at lunchtime, when there would be the fewest people at Stanford Express Care, I should put on a mask, come down to Stanford, and wait in my car. I had not had contact with a confirmed COVID case, but I think they decided to test me because I have type 2 diabetes, which is a comorbidity for COVID-19.
I remember waiting in my car, and the doctors in their really intense PPE coming towards me. It felt like a scene out of Contagion. After my test, I went to sleep, and I had the most intense chills of my life. My teeth were chattering so hard that I was afraid they would break.
And then I started to hallucinate. I thought that my sister, who lives in Brooklyn, was coming into my apartment to take care of me, and I had this repeated conversation with her over and over again.
I woke up to a phone call telling me that I had COVID. I was really shocked. And the clinician from the San Francisco Department of Public Health said, “I think you should be in the hospital.” And they told me to sit tight and wait for an ambulance, which would come to pick me up.
Wells: Karan, what was going on with you?
Mahajan: I started to self-isolate that Friday. I canceled my classes for the week. I was tired, and I started to lose my sense of taste and smell in a way that I’d never experienced before. Eating pizza was like eating cardboard. But the university, at that stage, had not taken any steps. And it wasn’t until March 13 that the university decided to send students home.
I called up the Brown University nurse hotline. I was then told to call the Department of Health in Rhode Island, but I only got the voicemail a few times. Eventually I got a call from the Department of Health. My symptoms were never that serious—I never had a high fever, for example—so the people at the Department of Health seemed a little casual until they heard about F.T.’s case. Then they said that my wife, Francesca, and I would be tested the next day.