First person: I am a COVID-19 positive paramedic

Paramedic, EMS educator shares his personal experience of COVID-19 symptoms, testing and illness


John Dillon is a paramedic, a longtime EMS and law enforcement educator, and an early contributor to EMS1. John shared an email he sent to his coworkers about his COVID-19 disease and diagnosis. He concludes with information on testing that is specific to his employer and healthcare provider. Follow the testing process instructions from your employer. John’s email has been lightly edited for clarity.

John Dillon is a paramedic, a longtime EMS and law enforcement educator, and an early contributor to EMS1. 
John Dillon is a paramedic, a longtime EMS and law enforcement educator, and an early contributor to EMS1. 

Recently, I was confirmed COVID-19-positive and, as a result, and especially given the fact that I had worked a partial shift before being confirmed positive, my employer rightfully sent out an email to everyone stating a public safety employee had tested positive. They did emphasize that my primary symptom was a mild cough and not a temperature. While I appreciated my employer respecting my privacy, I felt that that by sharing my experience with others, it will give people a little different perspective then what they are hearing every day.

Keep in mind that in our region, for many of my friends and coworkers, I am the first person they know with COVID-19. This will likely change in the upcoming weeks. I decided to share my experience with the entire department. Since being exposed, I have had many people reach out to me to see how I am doing and what symptoms I am experiencing.

My lesson is a simple one, don’t wait to get sick or get a temperature. You must assume that minor symptoms do not prevent you from spreading COVID-19 to others. (Photo/Getty Images)
My lesson is a simple one, don’t wait to get sick or get a temperature. You must assume that minor symptoms do not prevent you from spreading COVID-19 to others. (Photo/Getty Images)

What is interesting is that for those that I have talked with, all expected I would be sicker than I actually am. The fact is my biggest problem every day is extreme boredom. I can only speak from my experience, but as I have researched online, and have talked to those that are interviewing suspected or confirmed cases is that my story is not that uncommon. Watching the news, all the preparation planning etc. have been based off the worst-case scenarios. However, I think all of us have this impression that if you get COVID-19 you will have more severe symptoms. I know I did.

Travel history: I had just returned from an 18-day trip from Colombia (amazing country by the way). There has been some speculation that I may have contracted the virus abroad, which as we all know is a strong possibility, but Colombia was not considered a hot spot, but I did return from an international flight and that in itself is worrisome.

The person I traveled with has not shown any symptoms. But to be honest, she was the smart one, she was super paranoid and self-quarantined (and trust me, I have been reminded over and over of this fact of how I am sick and she is not). Of course, after returning from our trip, we needed supplies like food and wine, so I did all the shopping. It’s very possible and probably most probable I contracted COVID-19 here in the U.S. But who really knows.

Onset of symptoms: On Sunday March 22, I developed what I can only describe as a slight dry cough. It felt like a cough from being back in a dry house. I didn’t feel any indications that I was coming down with something at all.

Monday morning (March 23) when I arrived at work, the dry cough felt more like a cold coming on and was a little more active. But very minor, and with no sore throat. I wrote it off to bad timing. I had no other symptoms.

Later that day, I did develop some GI issues, nothing major and I have certainly had worse. It was at this time, because of recent travel, and now having some GI symptoms, that I went home.

Later that afternoon, I developed other symptoms that I would best describe as my body was trying to fight something off. Primarily these symptoms consisted of chills, some general body aches, and feeling tired. But even these symptoms were mild. A definite contrast from how I started the day off. I had no fever even when I felt my worst.

Since Monday, March 23, these symptoms have remained but in moderation and continue to be mild. And the only way I can describe is a general sense that my body is fighting off an infection. I will also add one other minor symptom, I have an appetite, but nothing really tastes good to me, this may be related to a loss of smell, but all I can say is food just doesn’t taste satisfying.

So why share this? I think we all have this impression that COVID-19 is some nasty stuff and of course we are hearing constantly about all the deaths, and horror stories. And there will be those exceptions of the 35-year-old adult that dies of COVID-19 with no other health issues. Some of you are seeing firsthand these cases. It is undeniable that for a percentage of the population it can be deadly, as we are constantly reminded.

But what is not being reported, at least not in the headlines, is the average healthy person’s response to the virus. The reality is for many healthy adults that contract COVID-19, symptoms may be very mild and, in some cases, non-existent.

Don't do what I did. I found myself writing it off to something minor. My exact words on Monday were, “I picked a poor time to come down with a cold.”

Do not rely on a temperature as your marker for being infected. I know this is in contrast to what many departments and experts are relying on. When most of us develop a fever, we have other indicators that tell us we need to check our temperature. It is rare that you have a 99.4°F temp and not feel any other symptoms. This is like waiting for the water to be seen on the promenade deck on the Titanic before you abandon ship. That has been my message to everyone. Having a fever, of course, is an absolute “do not even think of coming to work.” But my lesson to you is pay more attention to the minor symptoms like a cough, or sense that you are coming down with something.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is best to assume you have it. If I would have felt like I did Monday afternoon in the morning, there is no question, given the current situation, I would have stayed home.

Testing: First off, I am very appreciative of the support I have been given by my employer. After some discussion, it was decided that I get tested. Here is how that process went. Essentially, we were given a number to call at a local clinic in case we exhibited possible signs of COVID-19.

I called the number and I was first interviewed by a screener of sorts to see if I met the criteria to talk to a nurse. It was crucial in my case that I tell them that I was a first responder or there was no way I was getting tested. Then I was put on with a nurse who asked me a series of additional questions. After this interview, I was deemed appropriate to be tested.

My appointment time was set to a time between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. I was instructed to call a number once I arrived in a parking lot for further instruction. Once I called the number, I was instructed to drive up to a tent. I was then called by a physician and asked a series of questions. Then two staff members came out, in full PPE of course, they verified my identity and performed a very brief test that is best described as not a very pleasant experience, but it was quick. I was told to wait for results for 5-7 days. This all transpired with me sitting in my car.

To my amazement, I received a call from a clinic physician the next day with news that I was in fact positive. I then received a call from the Department of Health on Friday morning for further screening and was asked a series of questions. They also sent me a document stating I tested positive that I could present to my employer.

I want to emphasize that this is a serious health crisis and it will have many casualties before it is over. But I feel it is also important to tell the other side, the side that the majority of patients will experience. As the weeks progress, we all will hear firsthand experiences from friends, family and the odds are you may in fact be joining me in your own COVID-19 experience. Hopefully, many of your stories will be like mine. I have apologized to those I potentially exposed when I came to work on Monday. 

Follow up: After I sent out the email to my coworkers, I found many were extremely appreciative of my candor and transparency. What I heard the most is people telling me is that how my story is in stark contrast to what they hear every day in the news, social media, and the many other sources, many of which are painting a very grim picture. My lesson is a simple one, don’t wait to get sick or get a temperature. You must assume that minor symptoms do not prevent you from spreading COVID-19 to others. Take the smallest symptoms as a strong indicator that you may be infected. Follow your local guidelines for screening and testing.

A week after I first showed symptoms, I am still experiencing body aches, some GI issues, and a general feeling that I am fighting off something. My cough has diminished. My biggest complaint today is boredom. I guess I should consider myself lucky. If boredom is the worst that happens to me, I can live with that. Be safe my friends.

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