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Former Coronavirus-Infected Patient

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the coronavirus pandemic, including how dangerous is it really? What we have seen so far is that the disease is particularly dangerous for the elderly and those whose - with compromised immune systems. But most people do recover. According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, which is carefully tracking the outbreak, more than 75,000 diagnosed patients have recovered.

Danni Aubain is one of them. She is a former public health nurse who was recovering from lymphoma treatment earlier this month when she tested positive for coronavirus. She's feeling much better now. For that, we are grateful. And we reached Danni Aubain today in Providence, R.I., and asked her to describe what it was like when she started feeling sick.

DANNI AUBAIN: So the first day, I just felt generally unwell and fatigued and kind of that flu feeling when a flu is coming on. But my blood pressure was incredibly high, which is very unusual for me. And that was sort of the first symptom for me which is unusual. I haven't heard of other people experiencing that. And the second day was the classic symptoms - coughing, fever, chills, sweating a bunch and really not being able to catch my breath and feeling incredibly short of breath. And that was the 1 of March. It was very, very noticeable.

MARTIN: You're going through treatment for lymphoma. I think anybody would know that that means that your immune system is already compromised. Did the medical professionals give you any special care or any instruction based on your vulnerability? I mean, did they kind of fast-track you in any way?

AUBAIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they definitely fast-tracked me, and they made sure to monitor me very closely. And we didn't have access to a test at that time because I hadn't traveled outside the country, and we weren't exactly sure where I'd gotten infected. And so we basically treated it like any other respiratory infection. And they gave me supportive care, sent me home with oxygen, some anti-inflammatory Tylenol and some other medication to support me at home. And we just kept in contact by phone.

MARTIN: So how long was it before you were actually tested for coronavirus specifically? Was that even mentioned at the beginning?

AUBAIN: Yeah. We talked about it on the 1. Both days, we did a rapid flu test, and they came back negative. So we treated it as if it was a viral pneumonia. They took very strong, you know, respiratory precautions for themselves, and I wore an N95 mask.

And it wasn't until the 6 of March that I had gone home, and my symptoms had not gotten better. And I had called our State Department of Public Health several times during that week to ask them, can I get a test? And still tests were not available. They didn't have an answer for me. And on the 6, my symptoms kind of changed, and I actually became hypothermic. My pulse got a lot weaker. I felt physically just exhausted. And I had not stopped coughing.

And that's when my oncologist and the ER doctor urged me to come back into the emergency room. And they were able to take a test and send it to Quest, which started testing the following Monday, on the 9.

MARTIN: But if I'm hearing you correctly, it took three hospital visits before you were able to get a test...

AUBAIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...For coronavirus. Is that right?

AUBAIN: That's right.

MARTIN: Right. And once you had the coronavirus test, was there any contact testing - like, any effort to sort of follow up to figure out how you might have gotten it?

AUBAIN: Yeah. There was some follow-up. And we know that I contracted by visiting with friends who had been at the Biogen Conference here in Boston, and that's where the vast majority of people who had initially gotten sick in Boston - it could be traced to that conference. I had met up with friends for a lunch and then a dinner.

And we, you know, shared that with the Department of Public Health here in Massachusetts. But I think that at that moment and even up until, like, this week, when I spoke with them, there just aren't enough tests to test people who are not displaying severe respiratory distress.

MARTIN: So what's the recovery period been like for you?

AUBAIN: It's been rough for me in particular. And I know this won't be the case for everybody. I only stopped coughing a few days ago, and it's been a dry cough. And it's mostly because of, you know, just my immune system is not great.

And I've also been anemic. One of the other things that happens when your body is trying to fight off a new virus is that it produces a lot of white blood cells, which can mean that it ignores or stops producing red blood cells. And I already had low red blood cells to begin. So I've just been very tired and sleepy and fatigued. My body feels really tired.

MARTIN: And now let's wheel around to the other side of this that's very, very real for people, which is, how much does this cost? What did you have to pay for, and how much altogether, if you can kind of walk us through a little bit of that? And thank you for letting us in your personal business. But I think people need to know.

AUBAIN: The test that I had was part of a panel, and the panel was for a lot of different respiratory viruses. But at the time that we sent it out, it was the only test that we seemed to be able to find that also included COVID-19. And that test cost $907.

And that was just the test alone. The visits to the emergency room - on average, each of the three visits cost about $5,000, somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000. And then, of course, lots of other lab work, lots of x-rays, an echocardiogram of my chest, an EKG to make sure my heart was functioning. And so, yeah.

It was, all said and done, somewhere between $23,000 and $15,000, which is astronomically expensive, obviously. And I will be applying for Medicaid, which is the federal health insurance program run by each state for low-income people. And that will cover a vast majority of the cost. But the private testing that went out to the lab I have to pay out of pocket.

MARTIN: And so even though there are various strategies for covering the COVID-19 test or the coronavirus test, what you're telling us is that the hospital insisted on doing a number of other tests before they would do the COVID-19 tests, right? And they're not talking about covering those.

AUBAIN: Right. And that is - that has been the guidelines. Like, if you go to any State Department of Health guidelines or the CDC guidelines, up until now, they've required people to rule out influenza first and also to rule out - there are a lot of other respiratory viruses.

So I know that there's a lot of anxiety about testing, and I think that that's - absolutely, we are way behind the ball. We should be more broadly testing. But in this moment, I think that doctors are doing the best that they can and making the right decision to give tests to the people for whom it will determine how they're treated.

MARTIN: Just as briefly as you can, what do you think should be done better in terms of prevention, in terms of care, getting people what they need right now, especially in the absence of a vaccine?

AUBAIN: Yeah. I think that we really need to break the mold of how we've done health care in the United States in the past. And so we really have to shift to being able to talk to people on the phone, do telemedicine, triage people and support them, check in with them regularly on the phone to make sure they're doing OK and that they have what they need at home. And we need to support people in staying in their homes.

And that will, I think, look honestly like we need to mass-mobilize the Red Cross and volunteers to deliver food and supplies to vulnerable folks who have to stay at home. I think that those are really key and important things.

And for people to educate themselves, what does pneumonia mean? How do you know when you have pneumonia? What is the difference between just fighting off a virus and being sick and what's normal versus, when does normally fighting off that virus shift to it being dangerous? You're developing pneumonia, and you might need to seek emergency medical care. We want to try and keep folks out of the emergency room unless they really are progressing to the point of needing serious care.

And that's, I think, going to take a lot of work on the part of all of us to educate ourselves about what pneumonia looks like, what are the symptoms, and then also on the part of hospitals and medical centers to redo the way that we've done medicine in the past.

MARTIN: That's Danni Aubain telling us about her experience with coronavirus. We're very glad she's feeling better. And she was kind enough to join us from Providence, R.I.

Danni, thanks so much for talking to us.

AUBAIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.