Editor’s note: The News + Record asked Chatham Hospital’s Eric Wolak, who recently recovered from COVID-19, to share his experience.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Carolina in March 2020, I was the nursing director for Medicine and Inpatient Oncology at UNC Medical Center. By March 2020, we had already done so much preparation to care for COVID patients. However, in March, things went from conceptual to reality. Two of my seven units became COVID units. This included a COVID ICU and a COVID acute care unit. At that point, my entire professional and personal life centered on COVID — and did so for a solid year, probably more.
At home, my wife and I canceled so many plans. We canceled vacations, weekend getaways, family reunions and time with friends. We no longer went out to dinner. We no longer went to comedy clubs. Our lives were very focused on protecting ourselves and those we love. And in January 2021, I transitioned from UNC Medical Center to the chief operating officer and chief nurse officer of Chatham Hospital. While I was in a new role, my focus remained the same — navigating a healthcare environment through the pandemic.
When the vaccine became available for healthcare professionals, I received mine as soon as I could. My wife was actually part of the Moderna study trials and ended up receiving the vaccine as a test group in August 2020, although she did not know it at the time. We were so thrilled when case counts started plummeting in the spring of 2021, and she and I both started putting our lives back together. Unfortunately, that celebration was short-lived with the emergence of the Delta variant in the summer/fall. Then, of course, there was the Omicron variant in winter.
We had both received our boosters in fall 2021, so while case counts started climbing, we felt secure in knowing we had as much protection as possible. As we all have learned, this virus mutates frequently, and each mutation seems to more easily evade the body’s immunity.
By this point in the pandemic, we started doing what most people were doing — we lived our lives as safely as possible. We wore masks in grocery stores, when we got haircuts, worked out at the gym, ran errands and while attending large indoor events. We socialized with those we knew were vaccinated and enjoyed time with family and friends, with a preference for attending outdoor events.
While we knew the vaccine and boosters we had received were not as effective in preventing illness, we knew that they remained very effective at reducing hospitalizations and death. This made us feel better as we eased back into “normalcy.” I will note that my wife and I are both under the age of 50, so we have only received one booster, per current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Then it happened. It was a Sunday a few weeks back and I was feeling just a bit tired. I had a long workout session earlier that day, so I chalked it up to overexerting myself. I went to bed pretty early that night, but woke up coughing at around 11 p.m. I performed an at-home test and the results were immediately positive. I was shocked. I thought back to where I could have gotten it and recalled an outdoor event I had attended a few days earlier. That must have been it. I went back to sleep and woke up early the next morning and called work. Luckily, I felt well enough to continue working, albeit remotely. That first day I felt, by-and-large, fine. I was only coughing sporadically and with some cold and flu medicine in my system, I continued with my virtual meetings.
My wife had recently recovered from COVID several weeks earlier — she was also infected while at an outdoor party. When she tested positive, I immediately moved into a different room in the house and we kept away from each other. She wore an N95 mask any time she left the room and I wore one any time I was closer than six feet to her. Because of this, I was able to avoid infection, that time.
She was out of town visiting her sister that weekend I tested positive. When she came home that Monday, since she had just recovered, we were not as strict about keeping away from one another. However, I did move into another room (again), mostly so I would not keep her up with my coughing. And I started coughing a lot!
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday that week did not go as well as Monday did. I had low-grade fevers, general malaise, muscle aches, headaches, an incredibly sore throat and extreme lethargy. I pride myself on working out six out of seven days a week. However, on those three days, I could barely move.
By Friday, I started feeling much better, but continued to have lethargy, especially by 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. That continued until Sunday, exactly one week from my positive test.
I am now “fully” recovered. I am outside my 10-day isolation window and back at work. I say “fully” recovered because I still have a lingering cough.
What has this experience taught me? First and foremost, it has taught me that the pandemic is not over. The current reported case count (which is around 150,000 cases daily) is a significant under-count. This is because most people are able to test at home — like I did — and those results are not reported anywhere. While this makes understanding how many actual cases are occurring very challenging, I am thrilled testing is more accessible than it was earlier in the pandemic. My wife and I actually got our at-home tests free from the federal government. You can order your free at-home tests online at covid.gov/tests.
The experience also taught me that physical distancing and masks work. As I mentioned, my wife tested positive several weeks before I did. But I was able to avoid infection by staying in a different room, staying six feet or more away from her and her and I both wearing masks if we were within six feet of one another. While she and I both ended up getting COVID at outdoor events, we were very close to others at these events. Moving forward, I think it’s something to be more thoughtful of as we continue to navigate through this pandemic.
Finally, this experience reinforced to me that while, clearly, these new variants are able to infect people despite being fully vaccinated, the vaccines are still keeping people out of the hospital. To me, that is what is most important as a healthcare provider.