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Column: My experience with (maybe) COVID-19
Thomas Hartwell

In early March, I called out of work. I’d been coughing a couple days prior, and on that Thursday, I felt something was off.  

I’d been reporting on COVID-19, but cases were just starting to make an appearance in Georgia. Maybe a week earlier, March 2, I'd written about two Fulton County residents testing positive, the first confirmed cases in the state.  

Even though known cases were now within miles of my home, I never considered I could have COVID-19. I thought I had a bad cold, maybe the flu if I was really unlucky. Maybe that's still all it was. 

But for more than two weeks, I was nearly bedridden.  

I had horrible chills, a cough, a stopped-up nose, headaches that lasted days and made me squint, my throat and chest hurt, I ached everywhere, and I maintained a fever over 100 but up to 102 for a number of days. 

When my symptoms really started to knock me out, I visited an urgent care to see if I could get a test, or at least some relief. 

It seemed as I sat in the exam room listing my symptoms to the doctor that the elephant in the room kept growing. Finally, I asked, “Do you think this could be COVID-19? Can I get a test?” 

I was told, no, I could not, even if the urgent care I was sitting in had one. Besides, they told me, I just had “the crud.” They sent me home with an antibiotic and a steroid. 

A week later, my symptoms had not improved. I went back, received more medicine and a chest X-ray and was again denied a test or referral for one. 

It took me around 18 days before I felt back to (somewhat) normal and weeks after that to be completely rid of the cough and chest soreness.  

I’d never been so sick before, and at times it was a little scary (by the way, so was the $700 bill I received after all of this). 

And I still don’t know if I had COVID-19.  

The problem at the time — when there were around 700 cases in the entire country, compared to the 4.2 million cases and more than 146,000 deaths reported as of Monday — was that I was not in one of the categories of people who were being prioritized for testing. Back then, only medical workers, teachers and a handful of others were able to secure a test and only if they had symptoms. There simply weren’t enough tests for just anyone. 

As testing capability has continued to improve (though you may have to wait a while to get a test and it may take weeks to get your results), I’ve been looking into antibody testing. The tests check your blood by looking for antibodies, proteins that help fight off infections and that may tell you if you had a past infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

The CDC says the tests could be an important tool in the fight against the virus. 

Antibodies can also provide protection against getting a disease again (immunity), though the agency says it’s still unclear whether those who had COVID-19 are completely immune. But those who know they have antibodies may be more apt to donate blood or plasma to help someone else fight it. 

Until recently, a few things prevented me from considering one of the tests. 

No. 1: It was reported in May that antibody tests were still less than 50% accurate in telling you whether you truly have the COVID-19 antibodies. 

The CDC says one factor is that a positive test could just mean you have antibodies from an infection with a virus from the same family of viruses, such as the one that causes the common cold. 

But while it depends what type of antibody test you take, it appears accuracy is generally improving. And the CDC says it’s continuing to evaluate the tests with partners like the National Institutes of Health, FDA and others. 

Next is the cost. I was told antibody tests were “really expensive,” and admittedly, that alone scared me off until I started doing my own research. Turns out, out-of-network cost ranges between $35 and $300, according to hospitals that would report their charges in a nationwide survey, and many charge less than $150. Not too bad, considering what my urgent care bill looked like. 

Finally, I found out later than many people that if you decide to donate blood or plasma, organizations like the Red Cross will test you anyway.  

So, with all that in mind, I figure I’ll schedule an appointment to donate. After all, it’ll help someone no matter what, and if I do have the antibodies, maybe my donation will help someone else avoid what I (maybe) had and what continues to take lives. 

Thomas Hartwell is digital editor of The Times. 

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