"I Had COVID-19. Here’s What Happened."

Learn how this novelist and mom protected her family as she rode out coronavirus symptoms under quarantine.

Like so many other mothers of grown kids, author Karen Dukess, 57, misses her two college-aged sons as she and husband Steve Liesman (a senior economics reporter on CNBC) adjust to life as empty-nesters. Which is not to say she isn’t busy, or doing her own thing. On March 6, Dukess—the novelist behind 2019’s The Last Book Party—attended the bustling New York International Antiquarian Book Fair in Manhattan, where dealers from all over the world hawked their wares.

Within days she fell ill. Here’s what happened next.

Do you have any idea how, exactly, you became infected?

I will never know for sure. But I did attend the book fair. When I look back at it now, I think, ‘Why would I go?’ But that was a different time, before we were doing social distancing. I had my bottle of Purell with me, and I kept using it after I touched anything. But there were a lot of people there. That said, I also took the Metro North train. I took the subway. I don’t know—but I didn’t to go many places after that.

Have you been in close contact with anyone else who’s tested positive?

No, not that I know of.

How many days before you felt symptoms, and what were they like?

The book fair was on a Friday. The following Tuesday I had chills in the afternoon. I felt like I was getting a cold. On Tuesday night, around eleven o’clock, I took my temperature and I had a fever of 101.2°F. I had a slight cough, but not much. Still, the fever alarmed me. The most noticeable thing was the chills, which just kept getting worse. The cough developed further from that point. It was a mild and intermittent cough. And it was wet more than dry—but everyone kept saying to look for a dry cough. Mine was scratchy and slightly wet. By the third day, I was coughing up green gook. From everything I’ve read, green gook was not a symptom of coronavirus. I thought it was a bacterial infection.

When did you call your doctor?

Wednesday morning [March 11]. I was prepared to do whatever it took to get a test—I thought it would be difficult. From everything I read, it was very hard to get one. So I called my doctor and said, “Look, I have a 101 fever, a cough, and I live on the border of New Rochelle [New York’s only official containment zone; to date, a quarter of the state’s 2,382 confirmed cases are from Westchester county]. She said, ‘You need to get tested.’ She phoned in a test order to Greenwich Hospital—this was before they’d set up the New Rochelle facility—and said, ‘Wait 30 minutes, then call and set up an appointment. Be prepared to wait on hold for a long time—but don’t give up.’ So, I was like, OK, I’ll stay on hold for an hour, whatever it takes. But then they called me right back and said, 'We’ve got your order, can you come in at two o’clock this afternoon?' I’d heard so many stories with people needing to make a million phone calls, and the inability to get tested, but they said to come that day.

Karen Dukess
Karen Dukess. / Nina Subin

What was the testing experience like?

It was drive-through testing, very efficient, set up in staff garage of Greenwich Hospital. There were two cars behind me and two in front. I was there for maybe 15 minutes. They only did one nasal swab. They didn’t do a throat swab. I got out of my car, sat in a chair, they did the nasal swab and told me to go. That was it. The women who checked me in when I first got there were not dressed in HAZMAT gear. They were covered and wearing plastic shields to protect their faces. The tester who did the swab, however, was in the full HAZMAT outfit.

What did they tell you about test results, and when to expect them?

I was told I’d get them in 24 to 72 hours—but also that they couldn’t guarantee if, or when, the test would be analyzed. So I was not very hopeful. I later found out that Greenwich sent the tests to the University of Washington in Seattle, which I guess has an excellent lab. From that point, I just behaved like I had it. My doctor said, ‘You’re quarantined. Your husband is quarantined.’ So we stayed away from each other.

How did you manage not to infect your husband?

The most important factor is that Steve got up early Tuesday morning and flew to Minnesota to visit our oldest son, who goes to college there. I started getting symptoms on Tuesday—the chills. He didn’t come back until Wednesday. By that time I knew I had fever and was already getting tested. So the minute he walked in the door we lived on separate floors, constantly wiped down everything, and just behaved as if I had the virus. If he’d been around on Tuesday I might have touched him, or prepared him dinner, or slept in the same bed. We were lucky. And then we were super careful.

Once he’d returned, what specific strategies did you put into place to keep him as safe as possible from infection?

Number one, we are fortunate enough to live in a house. You don’t want to share the same space or a bathroom. Steve moved up to the third floor and slept in one of our son’s rooms while he’s at college. There’s a bathroom, and Steve’s office is up there. CNBC sent him an iPad with a microphone and camera, and basically for the past week he’s been reporting from his home office. It was kind of funny: While I was watching British dramas on Netflix in our bedroom, he was broadcasting the economic aspects of the crisis upstairs—a little surreal, but it kept him busy during his quarantine, and he was able to do his job. And I just stayed on the second floor and only used that bathroom.

How did you deal with eating and food prep?

We found these old surgical gloves—I don’t even know why we have them—and I wore those when I was down in the kitchen. I wiped everything down, constantly. I’d wipe down the teapot, its handle, the cabinets—anything I touched, I sanitized. And I washed my hands a lot. We were never in the same room at the same time. He made food and brought it up for me—he’d stick an arm in the doorway, wave hi, and leave the food on the dresser. I took the dirty plates downstairs when he wasn’t in the kitchen. Our system was that I loaded the dirty dishes, he emptied the clean ones, so I didn’t touch them.

What specific advice did your doctor (or doctors) give to you to treat symptoms?

No specific advice other than to drink plenty of fluids and get rest—the basic stuff for flu or a cold. I took Tylenol, drank tea with honey, and slept a lot. Hot showers loosened up my chest congestion. I had no shortness of breath or chest pain. I did have discomfort from a scratchy cough, which hurt a bit. And a bit of a stomachache with no appetite. I had to go the bathroom more than normal. But that’s it.

How did you tell your sons?

That was the hardest thing. Our oldest, who is 21, lives off-campus in Minnesota. When they cancelled classes, he had friends and they stayed together. I felt good about that—there is less coronavirus there than here, it’s his senior year, and he couldn’t come home. Our younger son, who is 19 and goes to college in Maine, was at a frisbee tournament in Myrtle Beach, SC. His school was cancelled, and his mom had coronavirus, and he couldn’t come home—I felt so bad for him! In the end, it worked out. He has really good friends there. He had to drive back to Maine, get his stuff from his dorm, and he stayed in town with good friends off-campus. Again, there is [likely] less virus in Maine, he’s at a friend’s house, and we all felt better about that then we did about him coming here, only to camp out in other people’s homes with nervous people who are all worried about getting the virus. He’s not going anywhere [right now], and just hanging out with his small group of friends.

When did you get your test results?

On Saturday, March 14, in the afternoon. My doctor called us with the news. There was no official documentation for us from anyone—I guess the results just went directly to her. Once we knew I was positive, Steve went and got his test. He got his results back on March 17—thankfully, he’s negative!

Social distancing is isolating and tough enough when you’re feeling good—did you struggle emotionally at all, or fight fear or even moments of panic?

I felt a little nervous—but I didn’t think I had it when I had symptoms. I was concerned, but by the time I got tested I was already starting to feel better. On Wednesday and Thursday [when I was most symptomatic], I was really tired and mainly stayed in bed. By Saturday [results day], I felt better, so I was pretty sure I didn’t have it. It would have been scarier to get the results with a fever of 101. But I was already feeling better when I got them.

Also, texting and talking on the phone with my friends and family helped. And my husband was home with me, so I didn’t feel like I was alone. He would stand in doorway to the bedroom and we’d talk for a few minutes. It would be scary to be sick and home by yourself.

Any binge-watching recs to pass the time during quarantine?

For the first two days, I was too tired to watch anything. But then I binged four British series: North and South, Daniel Deronda, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Little Dorrit. Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens got me through the coronavirus!

Now that you’re feeling better, what guidelines are you following regarding your exposure to others?

I was given a piece of paper from the CDC that said to separate yourself, wear a face mask—but, right now, who can get one?—and to cover your cough and sneezes. Again, just the basic stuff. I talked to the county health department--we called them even though they were supposed to call us—and they told me not to leave the house. They told me I needed two negative tests before I was considered clear and ready to go about my business. My doctor said even though I feel better, I can still test positive for awhile, so I’ll probably get tested again this Friday or Saturday, and then again next week.

What do you want to tell other people who are beginning to experience symptoms of COVID-19?

Try not to be so scared—but do be vigilant. Even if you think you probably don’t have it, act as if you definitely do to protect other people.

That being said, I think if you’re healthy and not really old and have no underlying conditions, you don’t need to be too scared. My experience with this was not as bad as when I had the flu a few years ago—this was shorter and less intense, less uncomfortable. I can’t give medical advice, but I’ve talked to so many people who are worried, who all have sniffles or sore throat or cough—but everyone gets sniffles. For me, the most significant symptom was the fever—I don’t usually get one, and it told me something was going on. No one was socially isolating then, but I was sanitizing with Purell and washing my hands, and I still got it. I’m not that young—I’m 57, but I’m healthy—and it wasn’t that bad.

Also, just know you can’t really prepare food. You’re not well enough to do it, and you don’t want to contaminate your loved ones. My neighbors and friends have been amazing. Some made cookies, others dropped off groceries, my porch became a lovely landing. And when I ran out of one medication, I called my local pharmacy. They told me they’d stopped their delivery service—but when I explained I couldn’t pick it up because I had coronavirus, they said, ‘We’ll bring it to you. We’ll drop it off, no charge.’ Everybody has been super nice.

As for immunity, I know the jury is still out, but from what I gather you generally don’t get it again. When I’m out of quarantine I look forward to doing errands for other people who need help. Having immunity is a little bit of a superpower. If God forbid my husband or kids do get sick, I can take care of them.

Lauren Paige Kennedy
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Lauren Paige Kennedy

Lauren assigns and edits articles across HealthCentral’s 90+ condition categories. She's written and/or edited health content for 15 years, and she’s interviewed some of the biggest names in Hollywood, music, sports, publishing, and politics—almost always with a health-focused slant. She was a Co-founding Editor of WebMD Magazine and Editor in Chief of Washington Flyer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Neurology Now, Brain + Life, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, WWD, Style.com, Washingtonian, Travel + Leisure, Financial Times, and many others.