ST. PAUL — Alexandra Nelson followed all the recommended protocols: Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer. Don’t touch your face. Spray everything with Lysol.
The St. Paul resident still contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. She tested positive on Sunday, March 15, during a trip to Chicago.
Her first reaction when her test results came back: “I couldn’t believe it. I was, like, ‘Me?’ I followed all the rules. I’m super-clean. My husband works from home, and there’s only the two of us at home.”
Nelson agreed to talk about her experiences as a way to encourage others to take the virus seriously.
“You cannot go on with life as normal,” she said during a phone interview Tuesday, March 17. “You need to stay home. Everyone could have it by now. Keep your distance from people, for real. Keep washing your hands. If you’ve been exposed, go into self-quarantine right away.”
Nelson, who is married and has two daughters, said she first began experiencing symptoms on Thursday. But unlike many people diagnosed with COVID-19, Nelson said she never got a fever or a cough.
“I didn’t have any of that,” she said. “I never had a fever. When I went in, my temp was 98.”
Minnesota health officials say symptoms of the virus include fever, body aches, fatigue and a dry cough. If the infection becomes more severe, patients may have shortness of breath, trouble breathing and coughing up thick phlegm from the lungs.
What Nelson did have was body aches, chills, a severe sinus headache in the front of her head, a sore throat and extreme fatigue.
“You know when you get the flu and everything hurts? It is just like that,” she said. “I was so tired on Saturday that I fell asleep on the couch folding clothes. I was, like, ‘Um, that’s not normal.’ I never take naps; I don’t lay down during the day. That’s not me. I crashed, and I slept for hours. It didn’t even matter that people were talking around me, I was out.”
Another concerning symptom: the complete loss of her sense of smell, she said. “I’m usually very sensitive to smells. My family gets really annoyed with me because I usually smell everything. Now, I can’t smell anything.”
After sleeping all day Saturday at their condo in downtown Chicago, Nelson said her chest hurt when she woke up. “I went and got some VapoRub, and I said to my husband, ‘You know, I think I can’t breathe.’ I was feeling, like, heat inside of my body. I was feeling very warm, and I thought, ‘This is not normal.’ I was extremely tired, and I felt this heat.”
Nelson, a mortgage banker, learned via a text message she received at 9:26 p.m. Saturday that she might have been exposed to COVID-19 at a private funeral Mass in New York on March 7.
Nelson immediately called the HealthPartners CareLine in Minnesota and received an over-the-phone screening. They recommended that she call a hospital in Chicago.
Staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago said they could not screen over the phone, but instead recommended that she come to the hospital for testing after she told them she had been exposed and was not feeling well. She said she and her husband, Jim, had to wait outside on the sidewalk in front of the hospital for almost 40 minutes because there wasn’t a room available. They stayed at the hospital from 11 p.m. Saturday until 3 a.m. Sunday.
It wasn’t until 9:30 p.m. Sunday that Nelson learned her test came back positive. “I’m just glad that I went and that it got confirmed,” she said, adding that her insurance co-pay was $700 for the visit.
“I’m concerned that people may not go and pay to get tested and instead keep spreading the disease because they are not quarantined,” she said.
Since her diagnosis, she said, there has been “no follow-up, no nothing.”
“No one from the Department of Health has called me,” she said. “I called my primary doctor yesterday morning at 8 in the morning, and they took a message and didn’t call me back till 4. When they did call back, all they said was, ‘If for some reason you feel like you are not breathing, go straight to Regions Hospital.’ They said we were OK to drive home as long as we didn’t make any stops.”
The family arrived back in St. Paul about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Nelson, who has been subsisting on Tylenol, water, tea and chicken soup since her diagnosis, said she and her husband went to Chicago on Friday to pick up their daughters — both of whom were living abroad.
Bella Nelson, 19, an international-business major at Loyola University in Chicago, had been on a study-abroad program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, since January, but had to come back to the United States on Sunday — almost two months before the program was slated to end.
Gabby Nelson, 23, a graduate of DePaul University in Chicago, was a Fulbright Scholar in Belem, Brazil. She arrived in Brazil in February and was supposed to remain until November. Instead, she was told on Friday that the program had been terminated, and she had three to four days to evacuate the country. She arrived at O’Hare International Airport on Monday after flying through four airports in three countries, Nelson said.
Ironically, the Nelson family had already planned to quarantine for 14 days because of their daughters’ travels. “By no means was I thinking that I would be the one,” Alexandra Nelson said. “I was spraying Lysol on the carpet, wiping down the door knobs, everything — to make sure we were safe.”
Nelson said she was already hyper-aware of the dangers of COVID-19 because her mother lives in Madrid, her sister lives in London, and she has family members in Italy.
“I was already panicking after hearing from them,” she said. “This is an epidemic that is all over the world. Can you imagine when this hits the road and everybody gets it? They don’t have it under control, and they don’t know how to treat it. What are we waiting for?”
Fortunately, Nelson said, she learned that she could have been exposed.
“If I hadn’t known this person had it, I would have never gone to the doctor,” she said. “People have to take it seriously. People have to stay in their homes, keep their distance and take care and help take care of others. Prudence, please.”
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