First COVID patient in Champaign County survived the virus and an unsure medical community

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Champaign attorney Gail Rogers with her dog at Sunset Park in west Champaign, Il on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. She was the first person to be diagnosed with COVID in Champaign. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

One of Gail Rogers’ most vivid memories while in intensive care for COVID-19 was the doctors who would not come in her room, but instead peered at her through the inside window and gave her a thumbs up sign.

As Champaign County’s first COVID-19 patient, the 52-year-old lawyer also remembers how unprepared the health profession was for the virus in March of this year, despite five weeks’ warning. 

How she spent hours in the emergency care waiting room at Carle Foundation Hospital in March, on Friday the 13th, waiting to be seen before testing positive.

How she was sent home that day only to return a week later on Friday, March 20, in an ambulance. And eventually how she was put into a hospital room, and later the intensive care room where it seemed that even the doctors feared to enter.

The infection

When Rogers — who has asthma — started to have difficulty breathing along with a fever and a bad cough in early March, she thought it likely she had COVID-19. 

The virus was a primary topic of the news as cases in the U.S. had begun to rise, but Rogers said she understands now it was difficult for the medical field to be ready for the virus as health officials did not have extensive or detailed information on the virus.

At first, Rogers contacted her primary care doctor at Carle Clinic in Mahomet. She was told to come to the clinic on Thursday, March 12. However, once she got there, the physician’s assistant told her that she probably didn’t have COVID-19 and sent her home.

The next day, she went to the Emergency Room at Carle Foundation Hospital, still sure she had COVID-19. She said she sat in the waiting for about five hours without any social distancing or mask-wearing because, at the time, those practices weren’t recommended.

When finally taken into the ER, the staff put her in a hallway bed and gave her breathing treatment, where she was still surrounded by several people. She repeatedly told the doctor and nurse that she thought she needed a test. At first, they told her they didn’t have any tests, she said, but they eventually gave her one.

“I practically had to beg for a test,” Rogers said. “I thought that was ridiculous, when I had all the symptoms.”

The doctors sent her home after taking the test. Her positive result came back the next day. Several months later, she discovered she was charged almost $750 for this hospital visit because it happened before the CARES Act was passed, which is supposed to cover COVID-19 treatment.

Infection from Italy

Rogers’ friends, wife and husband Chris and Dave Whippo, left to visit their daughter in Milan, Italy, on February 20. On February 21, COVID-19 was all over the news, they recalled.

While they were in Italy, they said they kept their distance from other people and avoided crowds, although they did travel to Switzerland. They returned to the U.S. on March 1, when many American students were returning because of alarms about the virus. They said the airports and airplanes were crowded, and there were several signs stating the symptoms of the virus, but little else. 

Both Whippos are retired healthcare workers; Dave was a radiologist and Chris was a nurse. They knew to isolate themselves after they returned from Italy and told friends that they were going to avoid seeing people. But they did see Rogers, one of their closest friends, on Friday, March 6, in their home. They watched a movie together while trying to keep their distance.

“I regret that so much,” Chris Whippo said.

Looking back, Chris — who has connections at several nursing homes — recognizes that she could have been a super-spreader had the couple not isolated when they returned home.

“I’m in a lot of groups,” Chris said. “I could have infected almost every nursing home in town.”

Second ER trip

After her first visit to the ER, Rogers spent the week resting and taking her asthma medication. But on Friday, March 20, her oximeter reading dropped below 80 and she had a very difficult time breathing. She returned to the ER by an ambulance and was admitted into the hospital.

At that time, there were 163 cases in Illinois and 5,619 nationwide. 

The doctors put her on the floor for COVID-19 patients and gave her an oxygen mask. During this time, Rogers said she received little communication from the staff. While the doctors sometimes spoke to her, she said they mostly waved and gave her a thumbs up through the window across from her bed.

“I felt very much in the dark about a lot of things because I didn’t know what was going on,” Rogers said. “I got most of my answers through the nurses.”

The nurses also asked her to think of everything she may need at one time, so they could reduce their contact with her. Despite that, Rogers said she was very happy with the care she received from her nurses, particularly one nurse who kept her informed and also communicated with Rogers’ daughter, who lives in Washington D.C., throughout her stay.

During that time, Rogers said she received hydroxychloroquine, a drug known for malaria, which was later dismissed by most medical experts as ineffective. She said it didn’t help her at all, but she eventually received steroids, which did help.

Despite feeling better, Rogers was told on March 28 she had to go to the Intensive Care Unit and be put on a ventilator because they couldn’t keep her oximeter reading up.

“When they said ‘ventilator,’ I was worried I wouldn’t come off,” she said. “I didn’t know how successful that would be.”

But Rogers did not end up on a ventilator. Instead, she was in a room receiving oxygen that had negative air pressure and soon, her condition further improved. She got her first negative test on March 31 and her second on April 1. She was then discharged on April 2. The doctors originally wanted to send her home with oxygen, but did not because her insurance didn’t cover it. 

By then, COVID cases were surging with 29,717 cases in the U.S. and 717 in Illinois.

Carle Foundation Hospital recently stated they cannot address any specifics about a patient’s treatment, but always followed CDC guidelines:

“In general, Carle regularly treats patients with infectious illnesses and is prepared to do so as a facility specializing in this treatment with a Highly Infectious Disease Unit and Infectious Disease physicians. The principles of treating COVID-19 are consistent with how Carle treats other airborne infectious diseases including use of personal protective equipment for patients and staff, negative air pressure rooms and isolation for the patient.  In addition, during this pandemic, Carle has consistently followed CDC and Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines.”

Isolating in Florida

While Rogers was in the hospital, the Whippos isolated at a house in Florida. It was when they were in Florida that they discovered Rogers tested positive for the virus.

But when they returned at the end of March, they were able to pick up Rogers from the hospital. Chris said she went over to Rogers’ house almost every day to check on her.

The Whippos were never able to get tests themselves, but did experience a loss of taste and smell, which they did not realize at the time is a symptom of COVID-19. All symptoms they had were minor and faded quickly.

“I’ll never forget, I was reading the end of a New York Times thing and it said ‘this may be related to COVID, people are losing their sense of taste and smell,’” Chris said. “I was like, oh my god. Because it was different. I lost it for quite awhile.”

Contact tracing

Rogers, who specializes in family law, went to court on Monday, March 9, three days after seeing the Whippos. She also went to her office at M2 on Neil.

Judge Randall Rosenbaum, who was the judge at court that day, received a message from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District that Rogers was infected with COVID-19.

However, her office received no word from the health district, according to the office manager, Suzanne Wingate. While the building is made up of separate offices, there are still common areas and bathrooms. Wingate said she heard Rogers had the virus from an attorney friend. After discovering this, she contacted Rogers to confirm she had it and then reached out to the health district, who also confirmed it.

Awais Vaid, deputy administrator and epidemiologist for the public health district, said the reason the office was not contacted is because at the time, they did not know how the virus spread and focused on people who had close contact.

The Whippos also did not receive a call, despite Rogers giving the health district their phone number. Chris said she even called the health district but received no call back.

“I thought it was really important to talk to us,” Chris said. “I was really surprised.”

Vaid said they did not call the Whippos because they had already left for Florida, which meant they were out of the district’s jurisdiction. However, he said they called the Illinois Department of Public Health, who contacted the local government in Florida.

When Rogers was first infected, she said the health district stayed in contact with her. But eventually, they stopped reaching out and never checked back in to see when she started feeling better.

Vaid said the district had limited contact tracers at the time and stopped checking in on people who were fever-free for three days.

“In March, we only had a small team of investigators who were following up on investigation and contact tracing,” Vaid said. “We were following the guidance to release people from monitoring if they were fever-free for about 72 hours and symptoms resolved. Although some symptoms would continue for a longer time, such as a lingering cough, we would still release them from our monitoring.”

Lessons learned

Vaid said that despite the early challenges, he feels Champaign County was as prepared as they could have been with the Coronavirus. He believes they were more prepared than most Illinois counties and even the country.

“I still remember, I was at a meeting just a week before we saw our first case and we kept saying, ‘It’s not a matter of whether we will, it’s a matter of when we will see a case,’” Vaid said.

Vaid added that the reason they weren’t encouraging masks in the beginning was because they didn’t know if they’d be effective, nor did they want to create a shortage for healthcare professionals.

He said they were also not aware of the effectiveness of social distancing.

“We were not anticipating community-wide, person-to-person spread this fast,” Vaid said. “We were more focused on travel. We were more focused on sustained personal interactions with people who are sick. And we did not know that it was spreading asymptomatically as well. Now we know those things. Recommendations were only being made based on what we knew at that time.”

Vaid said a major challenge in the beginning was the inconsistent messaging from the federal government, forcing them to make decisions beyond the national level.

“It started off very well with the CDC taking the lead. But then at some point, the White House and Federal government intervened,” Vaid said. “And they had a different agenda, and that really does cause more confusion. It was not consistent across the board and that really made a lot of issues at the local level because we were trying to figure out what was scientific and what was not.”

Back at work

Champaign attorney Gail Rogers with her dog at Sunset Park in west Champaign, Il on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. She was the first person to be diagnosed with COVID in Champaign. photo by Darrell Hoemann/C-U Citizen Access

Rogers said she is recovered but is still experiencing some rib cage pain and a little difficulty breathing. She is back to work as a lawyer and is relieved she survived the virus. But with that relief comes some guilt, too, she said.

“I felt a little guilt in that just because I survived and other people didn’t have the chance,” Rogers said.

She said she wishes she could have helped others infected with the virus by donating plasma, but had difficulty getting in contact with someone to do so.

Rogers credits Chris Whippo for helping her through the experience, as well as her bible study group, who regularly brought food to her door. 

Now, with more than 13,000 cases in the county and at lest 85 deaths and cases continuing to surge, she said she wants everyone to know how serious the virus is, despite any doubts they may have or if they think masks are not important.

“It’s scary. It’s painful. You can’t breathe,” she said. “It’s a scary feeling when you can’t breathe. I’ve never felt anything like that.”

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