Two Kodiak residents who tested positive for COVID-19 more than two weeks ago say they learned firsthand the importance of conducting their own contact tracing instead of relying on the state’s Public Health Division.
Daniel Fields, a CAT scan technician at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, started feeling tired after returning to Kodiak from a trip to Anchorage. He had a slight headache and his nose was runny — consistent with the symptoms of an average cold.
But because he had recently traveled, he decided to get tested for COVID-19 before meeting Kristin Elizabeth, a registered nurse, for lunch.
While he sat in his car, she swabbed his nose for a rapid test. Within 15 minutes, his result came back positive. Elizabeth followed protocol and had a second test sent to Quest Diagnostics for a double confirmation.
After Fields tested positive, Elizabeth immediately tested herself. Her result was negative, but she decided to quarantine with her two sons because they had been in close contact with Fields.
Meanwhile, Fields contacted the people he had been around in Kodiak since his return from Anchorage. They were also tested for COVID-19 and quarantined, Fields said.
Within a couple days, Elizabeth developed a headache, sinus congestion and a runny nose. She tested again four days later and came back with a positive result.
“If COVID wasn’t around, I would have thought this was seasonal allergies,” Elizabeth said. “With my symptoms that I had, I would have still gone to work and not known anything about it.”
She said her experience demonstrated the importance of getting tested if even the mildest symptoms arise.
Fields said his positive test made him feel nervous because he suffers from asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma is one of the medical conditions that can increase a patient’s risk of developing severe illness from the virus.
Fields said that during his quarantine, he closely monitored his symptoms in case they worsened.
“Personally, it was a funny mental game to have to play, not knowing if you were going to get sick or not,” he said.
Over the course of four days, his symptoms worsened slightly. He experienced fatigue and congestion in his nose, and he tired easily after slight physical activity, such as going for a walk. He also lost his sense of smell.
Six days after he tested positive, a state public health nurse based in Wasilla called him to follow up. She asked him where he had been in Anchorage and Kodiak, and if he had been to any large events.
He said he had not. The Public Health Division followed up a second time with Fields a couple days later because they considered him a high-risk patient due to his asthma.
With his active lifestyle, Fields said he is pretty healthy and noted how worse his symptoms could have been if he had more underlying conditions. When he worked in Denver, Colorado, he saw two severe cases of COVID-19 during which patients developed bilateral pneumonia.
“I’ve done this for 10 years,” he said about his health care job. “It’s the worst pneumonia I’ve seen.”
Elizabeth also quarantined with her two sons during this time. She said her symptoms were mild at the beginning, but eventually she lost her sense of smell. She discovered this when she was cooking fish sticks for her sons and ended up burning them. She found it odd that she couldn’t smell the food burning.
“I grabbed a pickle jar out of the fridge as a tester. And sure enough, nothing,” she said.
When the Public Health Division contacted Fields, he mentioned that Elizabeth had also tested positive for COVID-19. A worker from the division who followed up with Elizabeth said she was not in the state system even though she had submitted the proper paperwork. The division only knew about her because Fields had mentioned that Elizabeth had also tested positive.
“Since I was just a contact of (Fields), she put me in the system and said, ‘Someone might call you and double check on you’ … but no one has ever called me back,” Elizabeth said.
Fields said he will be considered “recovered” when his symptoms improve and he does not have a fever for 48 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication. A second test is not needed, and a patient can go back to work after 10 days of quarantine if the other criteria are met.
However, he noted that some people can test positive for months after they are recovered, even if they do not have the virus.
Fields said that people need to take the pandemic seriously because if the virus spreads widely in the community, it could easily deplete hospital resources. If COVID-19 patients started needing hospitalization, it could impact outpatient care and the ability of patients to make appointments.
“People could potentially have heart attacks or strokes, and they aren’t getting their care because the hospital is overrun with patients. People need to take it seriously because it could potentially snowball really quickly,” he said.
Elizabeth and Fields reiterated the importance of getting tested if symptoms appear, and quarantining if people find out they have been in close proximity to someone who has contracted the virus.
At a press briefing on Oct. 21, state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin highlighted the importance of self contact tracing.
He said contact tracing was an important tool to prevent the increased spread of COVID-19, and Public Health will try to call close contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID. But there are many daily cases, and the division gets backlogged, he said.