By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
The loud hacking cough barking through the phone is as painful as it sounds, Julie Straub assures me.
“It’s undoubtedly the most painful cough I’ve ever experienced,” Straub told the Current on Thursday by phone. “I also have this massive chest pain, almost like an elephant is sitting on my chest. You know when you go outside on a really cold day and breathe in deeply? That’s what it feels like all of the time.”
Julie Straub had COVID-19.
Actually she isn’t sure because other than the elephant on the chest, the fever and the extremely painful cough, the 38-year-old Shaler resident is pretty healthy. Because of her general fitness, she doesn’t qualify as high risk and therefore her healthcare provider, UPMC, says she doesn’t qualify for a test. Her fiancee has the same symptoms.
“They said they have a very strict protocol and I don’t fit the criteria for testing,” Straub said.
Currently, there are 268 cases of COVID-19 in the state and 27 in Allegheny County. There is no doubt that those numbers are low because there aren’t enough tests to go around. The only people who are being tested are those in high-risk categories like the elderly, those with lung and breathing issues, NBA Players and celebrities.
“Why can an asymptomatic NBA player get a test but a mother of two who is presenting symptoms cannot,” Straub said. She began feeling sick last Wednesday, saying she was just “feeling off.” She felt the same way and started to become “achy” in the next couple days and by Saturday the coughing and chest pain started. She called her doctor on Tuesday who told her to call back if her temperature hit 99.5 or higher. That milestone came on Wednesday but she was told she didn’t meet the criteria and to quarantine at home. On Wednesday she felt worse, the fever went up, the cough worsened, and she decided to get herself tested.
Straub went to a drive-thru testing on Thursday at a Central Outreach Wellness Center location on the North Side. The best way to test for the virus is a nasal swab, however, because of the test shortage, she couldn’t get one of those.
“Testing started at 11 a.m. and I got in line at about 10:20 a.m. and there were about 17 cars ahead of me,” she said. “Sitting in line, I saw only one nasal swab but by the time I got to the front, there weren’t many nasal swabs left and I basically got to spit into a cup.
“I know they are overrun and working non-stop. But you’d still like to know.”
She has been quarantined at home, her children stayed with their father. She works as a leasing consultant at a large apartment complex, 415 units. Her job is considered essential, but she hasn’t gone into work. She says her coworkers are nervous because they come in contact with a lot of people every day. “If it’s spreading through there, that’s a lot of people,” Straub said.
Straub’s fears are shared by many others in her place. There are more than 16,000 cases of the virus nationwide, more than a quarter-million across the globe with more than 11,000 deaths. Just this afternoon, Pa. Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said the number of cases of COVID-19 are doubling every two days. So it’s easy to get scared when you think you’re infected with a potentially deadly disease.
But for the majority of people who get COVID-19, they will fight the disease off successfully without any major complications. During a Thursday teleconference, the Current asked Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen about how worried people should be if they are not specifically tested and treated.
“The virus can present from extremely mild to extremely severe. Some people get headaches and sore throats and others have problems with their upper respiratory systems, Bogen said. “While the duration of the illness varies, 80 to 85 percent of people will experience mild to moderate cases of the virus. Those people will be able to get through the virus on their own. They never require any care outside the home.”
Bogen said people should use pain meds, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen for aches and cough medicine when needed. It is important, she said for these people not to overwhelm the healthcare system that is already dealing with the most severe cases.
At the moment, Straub and her fiancee are self-quarantining at home while they wait for their test results. She texts and facetimes with her kids, But most of her energy is spent just trying to get through this thing.
“It’s a scary thing, but I know even if I am positive I’ll get through it OK,” she said. “But right now, I feel like complete shit.”