Working in a hospital in Jersey City, N.J., across the river from the nation’s epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, Peggy Goins thought it might be only a matter of time before she was exposed.
Even though she worked in the neonatal intensive care unit and not with patients sickened by the novel coronavirus, the illness was all around her.
“I’m likely to get it based on where I’m at and where I work,” she remembered saying to herself. “If I do get it, I should be fine.”
After all, she was 32. She had no underlying health conditions and she had a regular workout schedule.
“Maybe I’ll be sick for a week or so and then I’ll be fine,” she told herself.
Goins, who lives in Rochester but works as a traveling nurse, was told by her manager at Jersey City Medical Center that a colleague’s spouse tested positive for the virus. The supervisor told Goins to watch for any symptoms.
The incubation period for COVID-19 can be up to two weeks. Near the end of that time, Goins said she developed a fever.
“I was feeling hot all the time,” she recalled.
The fever went away and she thought it was a fluke, or maybe allergies.
“Then the fever came back. I started to develop a cough and shortness of breath.”
About nine or 10 days after the initial symptoms started, she went for a test. She received the results a couple of days later, but she already knew.
“I was like, I probably did have it. I just felt terrible.”
Pressure in her chest, throbbing in her lungs
Goins was diagnosed in the middle of April, early in pandemic time. Doctors didn’t know much about the illness and protocols were changing almost daily.
Her first video appointment with a doctor left her discouraged. The doctor told her to monitor her oxygen level and if it falls to a certain point, go to an emergency department.
Goins had joined online groups of health professionals from around the world, so she took some of that information to subsequent video calls with her doctor. Goins knew there was no way to treat the virus, but she wanted more on how she could manage symptoms.
Then she started to feel chest pain.
“It was really, really scary,” she said. “I had this ongoing chest pain that would not go away. To have someone tell me there’s nothing to do about that, it was concerning for me.”
Goins felt constant pressure in her chest and an intermittent sharp, throbbing pain in her lower lungs. “It was something I never felt. It’s hard to describe it.”
In late July, several months after the onset, the pain occasionally comes back.
Goins was renting an apartment and because she would have to come and go through her landlords’ living space, she quarantined after she went for the COVID-19 test.
She had no energy, could barely get out of bed and barely feed herself. Her landlords picked up her prescriptions, did her shopping and made her meals.
“It was depressing, actually,” Goins said. “I think one of the worst things about this disease is the fear that you’re going to pass it to someone so that when you are sick, you really have to isolate yourself. And feeling the way I felt and being by myself was terrible.”
One day she might feel OK, then the next day she was wiped out. “It was scary to be young and have this happen where I literally cannot take care of myself.”
Even though she was getting information from her online support group of medical professionals, she needed a break from reading about COVID-19. The stories about new symptoms and young people dying started to worry her.
“Mentally, it takes a toll on you,” she said of the illness.
Young are not immune
Initially, fear of complications from COVID-19 focused on the elderly and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease. As for cases per 100,000 population in Monroe County, the leading age groups are those 85 and older and 75 to 84. But as for raw numbers, the 18- to 49-year-old age group had the most. The 2,082 cases in that age group were about half the total of 4,435 as of July 15.
“You can be young and have no health problems and you’re out of work and still having symptoms,” she said.
When Goins first went out after quarantine, she barely made it less than one-quarter miles around her block. “I was out of breath, sweating like crazy. I went ‘Oh my gosh, that was just a walk and it wasn’t that far. My lungs are just terrible.’ ”
She said things have improved and she is hopeful she can regain her pre-COVID fitness.
“That’s another thing about this disease,” she said. “There’s lot of long term effects that we don’t know about. Everyone is talking about the survival rate, but what does that look like. There are some people, they survive, but they have these symptoms that go on for God knows how long.”
Goins was scheduled to finish her assignment in Jersey City in early May. Because she missed so much time and felt obligated to the hospital, she stayed until later in the month. She now is working in Syracuse.
Goins said she knows people who suspect they have symptoms but dismiss them.
“I feel like if you have the slightest symptoms or inkling that you might be sick, I really think the testing is important to do as soon as possible. The sooner you know, the sooner you can isolate yourself and not be around people and exposing people.
“I kind of wish I had done that, which I know sounds kind of strange because I am in health care and I should know better. But for that week that I had a fever I kind of brushed it off as it’s not COVID, it’s something else. And then I started to feel better and I was like, ‘OK, I’m fine now.’ I went around people, which I still feel terrible about. And then I started to feel more symptoms. I feel like when I had that fever, it should have clicked for me to go and get tested then.”
The test captures a moment in time. A test can be falsely negative, but even if it’s accurate for that day it doesn’t mean you won’t be exposed the next day.
“Just because you’re tested and fine doesn’t mean you can go out and do whatever you want to,” Goins said. “You never know when you caught it or where you caught it. The people that you’re in contact with can still catch it from you.”