After enduring ventilators, body aches, and chills, coronavirus survivors say states reopening too soon could create a second wave of infections.
AUSTIN, Texas – Ron Wilkins endured 37 days on a ventilator, a failed kidney, medical paralysis and a mountain of medical bills.
As he slowly recovers from a near-death bout of COVID-19, the disease brought on by the coronavirus, at an acute care hospital near San Antonio, Wilkins and his loved ones face a new worry: states pushing to reopen stores and economies.
"People don’t really understand how serious this is until they know somebody who's going through it," said Rebecca Patterson, Wilkins' longtime girlfriend. "It's only a matter of time before everyone in the country knows someone."
She added, "I don’t know what the solution is, but I don’t think hurrying to open things up is it."
Thousands of coronavirus survivors are returning home after long, harrowing hospital stays to face lingering symptoms, job losses, staggering medical bills and stigma attached to surviving the virus that has infected roughly 1.5 million people in the USA and killed nearly 90,000.
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Many worry that states rushing to rescind stay-at-home orders and allow businesses to reopen will unleash a new wave of infections.
The debate over how fast states should reignite their economies flared last week when Dr. Rick Bright, a government immunologist, told a congressional committee that the window is closing fast to prevent the “darkest winter in modern history” if the nation doesn’t improve its response to the coronavirus.
Bright filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was ousted from his federal post in retaliation for his views. President Donald Trump called Bright an "angry, disgruntled employee" and has continued pushing states to reopen and rekindle the struggling economy.
Leaders in some states, including Wisconsin and Texas, advocated for the reopening of small businesses with the same guidelines as essential services, such as supermarkets, even as their COVID-19 cases mount.
Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court eliminated Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' stay-at-home order, prompting patrons to stream into bars and restaurants across the state.
"Do we need statewide rules for the run-of-the-mill opening of restaurants or small retailers? I don’t think so,” state Rep. Joan Ballweg told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Dashauna Ballard, 28, an educator from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said state officials would slow the pace of reopenings if they'd been through a COVID-19 scare. Ballard tested positive for the disease in early April after experiencing body aches, fatigue, fever and shortness of breath. She drove herself to a hospital and spent eight hours in the intensive care unit as doctors debated putting her on a ventilator.
Her breathing improved the next day, and she was released. Her job working with at-risk high school students was suspended, and school officials were wary of letting her return to campus to collect her personal items after learning she had contracted the virus, she said. Some friends have been reluctant to meet with her after discovering she had COVID-19.
Despite the stigma and uncertain economic future, Ballard said she's glad to be feeling better and recovering at her mother's home in Selma. She's worried states will reopen too soon.
"You are just potentially making the problem worse," Ballard said. "It's not something you'll want to go through. ... You don’t want to feel that feeling of your breath taken away when you bend down to tie your shoes. You don't want to go through that, no matter what age you are."
Dr. Omar Maniya, an emergency medicine resident at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, has seen both sides of the pandemic. Working in the hospital's emergency department, he's treated almost 200 COVID-19 patients, seen them struggling to breathe and had scores of them die on his shift.
One day in early March, Maniya woke up with chills, body aches and a fever that spiked to 102. As was the protocol at the time, he stayed home for a week, until his symptoms passed, then returned to work. He tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, a sign that he probably had the disease.
Maniya said he's worried that as states reopen, they'll experience the surge that hit New York, which leads the nation in confirmed cases (350,000) and deaths (28,000).
"I fear that many people around the country not experiencing this in their state are rolling their eyes thinking, 'It's not going to happen here,' " Maniya said. "A majority of states still have rising cases every day. I don’t think this is, by any means, under control."
Virginia Bennett, 77, is an active grandmother of four. She shuttled between her home in Indiana and her winter home in Naples, Florida, and took line dancing classes five days a week.
In mid-March, she felt suddenly ill in Naples and went to a hospital. X-rays showed her lungs ravaged by the virus. Doctors moved her to an ICU and placed her on a ventilator immediately, where she spent the next 36 days. Family members had no access to her, relying on twice-a-day phone updates from doctors and nurses.
Slowly, in early May, she began to improve and was released from the hospital May 8. Masked doctors, nurses and technicians applauded as Bennett was wheeled out of the hospital to the sounds of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" playing on the hospital PA system.
Bennett was transferred to another critical care hospital, where she would begin her long recovery from the disease, daughter Jennifer Grytza said. Doctors said Bennett might be at her new hospital for several more months.
Before COVID-19 nearly took her mom's life, Grytza, a sales manager at a hotel chain who lost her job early in the pandemic, said she believed states should reopen as soon as possible. Now, she's not so sure.
"I know people need to get back to work," she said. "I want to say, 'Let's reopen, but do it with caution and sensitivity to your neighbors and friends.' "
Alice Police, a Westchester, New York, breast cancer surgeon, thought she could ride out the virus at home in late March when she was hit with flu-like symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19. As her condition worsened, she was admitted to a hospital in early April.
Doctors discovered Police was experiencing what's known as a "cytokine storm," in which the body releases a surge of immune responses to combat a virus, a condition that could turn deadly.
“It’s like a thunderstorm for the body,” Police, 66, said. "It’s where the body is basically willing to kill you to kill the virus.”
Police was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was never intubated but struggled to breathe. She suffered from anxiety attacks, especially at night. After a few days, her condition improved, and five days later, she was released from the hospital. Later, symptoms reemerged, and Police returned to the hospital for a plasma infusion.
Recovering at home, she said she feels the country and its leaders are not taking the contagion seriously enough.
“This push to reopen is very, very wrong and short-sighted,” Police said. “The second wave could be worse.”
As the coronavirus began its explosive spread across New York City in March, Wilkins, 62, a well-known trombonist in New York, chose to ride out the pandemic with his mother and relatives in his hometown of San Antonio. In late March, he complained of congestion and fatigue but thought it was allergies flaring up.
On April 4, he texted Patterson, his longtime girlfriend, to tell her he felt "much better." Two hours later, Wilkins was rushed to the hospital, unresponsive, and immediately placed on a ventilator.
"It just escalated so quickly," Patterson said.
For the next 30 days, Wilkins was heavily sedated and struggling to breathe. The recipient of a kidney transplant six years ago, his only working kidney failed, and he had to be placed on dialysis. His white blood cell count shot up, and his blood pressure plummeted. He received a tracheotomy to make it easier for air to enter his lungs.
Doctors called Patterson to tell her Wilkins might not make it through the day. She rushed to the hospital and spoke to him from the nurse's station via a walkie talkie that a nurse held up to Wilkin's ear in his room.
"Hang in there," Patterson told him. "I know it's not your time, and we'll be hanging out again soon."
Slowly, in early May, his condition began to improve. He was able to breathe on his own and was transferred to a long-term acute care hospital in nearby New Braunfels. Thursday, he took his first bite of solid food in over a month.
Patterson said she doesn't know how soon Wilkins can return to his music career or whether there will be much of an industry left when he does. Wilkins, an Air Force veteran, has health insurance underthe Department of Veterans Affairs,but Patterson suspects it won't cover most of his medical bills, which she expects will be staggering. She started a GoFundMe.com site and personal website to try to raise money to cover his medical expenses.
Patterson relishes Wilkins' small victories, such as forming a few words using a Passy-Muir speaking valve and regaining the use of his fingers.
"It doesn't matter how old you are," she said. "It's a serious disease with long-term effects."
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
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