Severe ‘flu’ in early 2020: Was it COVID?

These 3 Joliet-area residents think they had COVID – but testing wasn’t available at the time

Many people look back over the past year and wonder if they had caught the SARS-CoV-2 early in the pandemic.

Unfortunately, evidence of the extent of the spread of COVID-19 early in 2020 isn’t clear.

The Centers for Disease Control said in a report it published in June: “It is not known how many U.S. infections occurred during February and March, but overall disease incidence before Feb. 28 was too low to be detected through emergency department syndromic surveillance data.”

In August, The Lancet published a study that estimates community spread in Seattle Washington may have begun in early January 2020.

Locally, three Joliet-area residents wonder if they had COVID-19 in early 2020, too.

Megan Fernandes

Fernandes, a former Joliet resident and former Herald-News intern, was living out of state when she became sick in March 2020. She was 24 and healthy at the time, she said.

Her initial symptoms were gradual: conjunctivitis, headaches, tiredness and sore throat. In a Facebook message, Fernandez said she saw her primary care physician, who thought Fernandes had respiratory syncytial virus, which typically causes symptoms similar to the common cold.

But “then came the fever with a cough so constant I gasped for air between coughs, chest pain and shortness,” Fernandes wrote. “Finally, when the loss of taste and smell hit me, followed by a pressure on my chest that felt like a 500-pound brick was pinning me down, and a shortness of breath that made me winded by the slightest movement, I knew I couldn’t fight it off at home.”

Fernandes said went to the hospital and was put into a “COVID tent” for eight hours. Because this was still early in pandemic, people had a general awareness that the virus was spreading, she said. COVID tests were available but not “heavily stocked” yet, she added.

“I was asked ‘Did you have confirmed contact with a positive COVID case?’” Fernandes recalled. “I answered honestly that I hadn’t, but in my line of work I travel a lot. I take public transit and I am around people constantly, so it wasn’t impossible.”

So because Fernandes didn’t know for certain she had come into contact with someone who had COVID, she was not eligible for testing, she said. An X-ray did show pneumonia, she added.

Fernandes said it took weeks for her to breathe “without pain and pressure choking each breath.”

As some symptoms improved, others took their place, making Fernandes wonder if she wasn’t a “long-hauler.” These symptoms included severe dizziness, lightheadedness and nausea. Doctors had no answers and, at times, seemed as if they didn’t believe her, she said.

“For months I was easily winded,” Fernandes wrote. “And it’s taken me almost a year to work up my cardio to a point where I don’t sound like I’m having an asthma attack when I exercise.”

Fernandes said she didn’t have her antibodies tested for past COVID-19 infection since her insurance didn’t cover it at the time. She’s since received her first shot of the COVID vaccine (Moderna).

Fernandes said her primary care physician at the time thinks Fernandes’ symptoms suggest COVID-19 but can’t be certain.

“This is the reality of those who got sick at the infancy of the pandemic,” Fernandes said. “I’ll never know if I would have tested positive.”

Mary Ann O’Neill

O’Neil, 65, of Joliet, was working in food service at an arena in February 2020 and believed she was exposed to the virus from a traveling ice show. She said some of the people with that show were from overseas and a few appeared sick at the time.

Her symptoms included extreme fatigue for two days and a painful, dry cough, O-Neill said in a Facebook message. She became dizzy on the third day and had trouble holding her head up.

O’Neil also lost her taste and smell and didn’t think anything of it at the time because she has allergies.

“My eyes were bloodshot, I couldn’t eat anything and had a hard time breathing,” O’Neil wrote. “Then the diarrhea set in. I was hot then had the chills.”

O’Neil said she missed an entire week of work, a first for her. She slept most of the time, took no medicine and did not go to the doctor, partly because she had no energy to get out of the bed and go to the doctor, O’Neil said.

At the time, O’Neil thought she had the flu or some other virus. O’Neil said she had never in her life considered going to the hospital.

“I was a day away from going when I started to recover,” O’Neil wrote. “I believe I had it.”

O’Neil said lingering symptoms included brain fog and trouble concentrating. When she returned to work, “I had severe shortness of breath just walking from parking lot to arena,” she said, adding she still currently has some shortness of breath when she works out.

She said it took eight weeks to recover to the extent she “felt normal,” although the breathlessness was a “daily struggle,” she wrote.

Like Fernandez, O’Neil has no plans to get tested for COVID-19 antibodies, Also like Fernandez, O’Neil has received a COVID-19 vaccine (Pfizer).

“We’re blessed to survive in ignorance,” O’Neil wrote.

Mary Beth Casper

Mary Beth Casper, 59, of Orland Park, who works work for the department of infectious disease at Loyola, feels she had COVID in January 2020.

She had severe abdominal pain and, thinking it was an attack of diverticulitis, went to the emergency department and was admitted. Although Casper had no diarrhea, the initial opinion was that she had clostridium difficile colitis, commonly known as C-diff, which can cause inflammation in the colon, according to the CDC.

“They couldn’t figure out what was wrong at the time,” Casper said. “They hydrated me really well and then sent me home.”

The cough, Casper said, was “just horrible” and said she’d lean over the side of the bed in an attempt to clear her lungs. She lost her sense of taste and had terrible conjunctivitis. Two other co-workers also became ill, one of them over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2020, Casper said.

“We thought she had the flu,” Casper said. “She came into work and we followed her around with Lysol wipes.”

That co-worker had positive antibodies two months later, but Casper did not, Casper said. A breast cancer survivor, Casper recently received a COVID-19 vaccine, too.

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.