By Shereen Siewert
Three months ago Lisa Berg was strong and healthy. She was conscientious about her wellness and had boundless energy. She worked three jobs, one of which involves hard manual labor.
“I saw, sand, cut, fold, carry, lift, climb, rinse, repeat,” said Berg, 53. “It’s like a CrossFit workout at work. So I was in pretty darn good shape.”
But Berg, who was born in Tomahawk but now lives in Loveland, Colo., said that all changed in late March, just after the stay-at-home orders came down. By March 31, she began to feel symptoms.
It wasn’t long before she knew she was in trouble.
“Cough, high fever, body aches, chills, shakes, a bit of stomach upset, redness around the eyes, chest tightness, shortness of breath, breathing trouble, weakness and fatigue,” Berg said. “Extreme fatigue that still lingers, even now.”
Her doctor told her to isolate and self-treat at home unless she got to the point where she couldn’t breathe. Only then, he advised, was she to go to the hospital.
“So I pounded Gatorade and water, one of my friends got me Vitamin C gummies that I eat morning and night,” Berg said. “Rest was essential. Even just after going out for the mail and getting winded enough that I had to sit on my front steps to catch my breath, I’d nap after that and rest when I felt I needed it.”
And that, Berg said, was pretty much all the time.
Berg is one a steady stream of COVID-19 patients whose grim roll call of symptoms doesn’t include the “fever, dry cough and loss of smell” we have all come to associate with the virus, which is continuing to impact residents in Marathon County and nationwide.
Among the symptoms we’re now hearing about from the survivors themselves: Tingling in the arms and legs, nerve pain, horrific headaches, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal disorders, conjunctivitis, a strange metallic taste and more.
Most headlines about the virus focus on the death toll, the numbers and statistics. But patients say that COVID-19 can mean a broad spectrum of symptoms, with the illness lasting far longer than two weeks. And more young, healthy people are being diagnosed, many with debilitating symptoms that are wreaking havoc on their lives – just not severe enough to warrant a hospital stay.
“The vast majority of COVID patients aren’t quite sick enough to be hospitalized, yet are very sick in their own right and are doing what they can at home to fight the battle,” Berg said, adding that many patients start to turn a corner only after 13, 14, or even 15 weeks after diagnosis. “This is the group that gets overlooked.”
“The disbelief is rampant.”
In a news release issued Friday, Marathon County Public Information Officer Judy Burrows said of all the 101 cases diagnosed locally, the highest number is among the 20-29 age group. And the number of cases locally doubled since June 5.
As of Friday, 361 cases have been identified in central Wisconsin’s eight-county region, 101 of those in Marathon County alone.
“Until now we have seen a relatively slow but steady increase in cases,” Burrows said. “This two week period has been record-breaking for us.
Berg said in addition to battling her symptoms, she’s been ostracized by some friends and family members who don’t believe the illness is real.
“I’ve been told that I must not get enough sunshine, that I need to take more Vitamin C, that I must have had a weakened immune system to contract it in the first place,” Berg said. “The disbelief is rampant.”
Berg is part of a Facebook group, the Survivor Corps, that is filled with stories like hers. Many members of the group report similar experiences. There are stories of women having to move out of their own homes because their husbands say it’s “all in their head.” Stories of therapists telling their patients, “I think you like the feeling of being sick, and that’s why you’re not over this by now.” Stories of doctors telling their patients they’re probably just “imagining” things.
“It’s maddening, it’s sad, and it’s unbelievable,” Berg said. “To be ostracized because you’re ill? I just can’t.”
Berg said she wants people to know that COVID-19 isn’t just something that affects the elderly or people with compromised immune systems or that it’s just like the flu.
“It’s definitely not,” Berg said. “And sometimes, the added scorn that comes with having it adds to the suffering.”
Children can also be affected. A study of children with COVID-19 admitted to pediatric intensive care units in the United States and Canada concludes that while the overall severity of symptoms in the children was “far less than that documented in adults… COVID-19 can result in a significant disease burden in children.” According to the research, published in JAMA Pediatrics, 40 of the 48 children, ranging in age from four to 16, had underlying medical conditions. Two of them died, and three remained on ventilators at the conclusion of the study.
Some scientists are cautiously optimistic that the world will have a more complete toolbox in fighting the virus in the months ahead. EU-backed researchers are requesting clinical trials to study the osteoporosis drug Raloxifene after virtual and laboratory tests suggest it could be active against the COVID-19 virus, according to a European Commission press release.
And the U.S is now conducting more than 3 million coronavirus tests a week, a sharp improvement over the shortages and failures that plagued health officials earlier this spring.
As some states and municipalities see spikes in cases, the debate over masks continues with some municipalities and businesses requiring them in at least some cases. American Airlines announced the company could deny future travel for customers refusing to wear face coverings. Delta, United, Southwest, Frontier and Jet Blue also announced passenger mask requirements in recent days.
Some Marcus theaters opened this week in without requiring masks and Wisconsin is one of four states with no mask mandate whatsoever, along with South Dakota, Montana and South Carolina. Fifteen states have masks required statewide, at least in businesses.
But even in states with mask mandates, Americans are defying these orders despite multiple studies published over the last week that appear to confirm the effectiveness of face coverings and social distancing.
All mask debates aside, Berg said she hopes people take time to research the virus before deciding how best to protect themselves.
“If this hasn’t affected you or your family, I know it’s hard to understand and maybe even believe,” Berg said. “But for that reason alone, perhaps feel very blessed that you are unaffected… and choose to turn that blessed feeling into interest – or at least belief – that something that hasn’t hit you personally yet can still be very real.”