Initially it was reported that the first cases of a flu-like disease came from a Chinese province called Wuhan in December 2019.
This, while now in question, led to the naming of the seventh coronavirus known to exist.
C = China
O = Origin
VI = Virus
D = December
19 = 2019
Speculation about COVID-19 ran rampant. It was a laboratory experiment that got out of control. It was a biochemical weapon. It mutated from bats and snakes eaten at an outdoor market from its purported point of origin.
In early February stories began to emerge about disease-stricken passengers aboard a cruise liner known as the Diamond Princess. Reports carried by international news showed images of people seemingly trapped in quarantine aboard the ship.
Eventually, the passengers were released in a manner that, in hindsight, could best be described as chaotic and haphazard. Some simply walked off the ship and got into a taxi, while others were flown in limited quarantine fashion from Japan back to the United States.
Fragmented recollections such as these, thought to tell the story of the initial introduction of COVID-19 into the United States, now seem like ancient history, although just under seven months have passed.
Since that time, world culture has seemingly turned upside down.
Globally and locally, individuals are encouraged to stay at home and refrain from travel. While U.S. President Donald Trump remains defiant about wearing a protective mask and pushes unproven treatments, scientists and physicians are hard at work to educate the population about the importance of protective gear and habits, while biochemical companies scramble to come up with a vaccine. Many businesses have closed, countless individuals have lost their jobs and means of support, social activities have come to a standstill and students have been forced to receive education via the Internet or television broadcasts.
Meanwhile, the numbers of infected and dead have continued to tic ever upward.
According to details from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, COVID-19 mutated ever-so-slightly once it began to spread across the United States and Europe, creating a strain that was reportedly 10 times more infectious than what was originally discovered in China.
Of course, all of the information told in the introductory section of this story is culled from various international reports. qnotes worked hard to find details from sources believed to be accurate and non-biased. However, with world reaction to the pandemic as it has been, it can be difficult to weed through details and ascertain what is valid, speculative or possibly tainted by political motivation.
As of late August, statistics place the number of cases confirmed around the globe at approximately 25 million, with an estimated 840,000 deaths. In the United States there are nearly six million confirmed cases, and close to 185,000 deaths.
Now let’s look at the story close to home. In North Carolina, practically 165,000 cases have been reported, with just under 3,000 deaths.
In South Carolina, the total number of people with confirmed cases is currently just under 115,000, with confirmed deaths also close to 3,000.
North Carolina residents and married couple Brian McCann and Tom Costales know first-hand how devastating the impact of COVID-19 can truly be. Both men became infected and extremely ill, were hospitalized, fought the illness and have lived to tell their stories.
McCann is a real estate broker. Husband Costales is a software quality engineer. The two met online in 2005 via Yahoo personals.
“We corresponded for several weeks and eventually made that initial phone call,” McCann recalls. “We discovered how our paths had crossed earlier in our lives. We grew up in the same town, went to the same church and discovered our dads played tennis together.
“Eventually we met face-to-face in Monterey Bay, Calif. and found the basic ingredients of a very successful relationship. Six months after our first date, we moved in together. We’ve been together ever since.”
In October of 2008 the couple married in California. Since 2016 the two have made their home in Cary, N.C.
Prior to the couple’s battle with COVID-19, Costales had been waging a health battle of his own with esophageal cancer.
While not an extremely aggressive cancer, his treatments did require multiple rounds of chemotherapy, which left him with a compromised immune system and more susceptible to various infections than most. Although it is often difficult to tell where the point of infection began, McCann recalls when and where he believes the initial exposure occurred.
“Tom had his last appointment for chemo and we were both very excited. There was a woman in the waiting room … I remember she kept coughing a lot. Every time she would cough she would take her mask off. I believe this is where we were initially exposed.”
Within two days Costales began to feel the effects. Five days later he was tested for COVID. Two days later the results come back as positive. While attending physicians felt his symptoms were not bad enough for him to be hospitalized, both men agree now that was a mistake.
Over the next week, Costales’ symptoms continued to grow worse while McCann says he experienced what he describes as similar to the impact of a bad cold.
On June 25, the men consulted with their general practitioner, who told Costales to return to the hospital immediately. He was admitted June 26 and placed into an intensive care unit.
“I should have been admitted sooner,” Costales recalls. “But since some of the symptoms of COVID are the same as the side effects of chemo, I was given chemo treatment measures. The delay was almost a week of COVID symptoms that were nearly too late to treat.
“If my admission had been delayed any further, even by just a matter of hours, ventilation and even death could have been very real outcomes. Certainly ICU care and the long hospital stay would not have occurred if earlier treatment was conducted.”
While contact-tracing has been a significant point of interest for many, that did not seem to be the case for the hospital staff the two men worked with.
“We offered our suspicions of where and how we contracted COVID, and they were met almost dismissively. We asked about this response, and while it was not lack of interest, it was found that even the most clear-cut instances of transmission could be easily disproved or found not to be the true source of transmission.”
As the next week passed, Costales battled for his life in the Intensive Care Unit at WakeMed Cary Hospital.
McCann, although likely positive and exhibiting symptoms, is not yet sick enough for hospitalization.
He continues to weather out the storm at home with updates from caretakers regarding Costales’ status.
“I started getting phone calls from ICU doctors and nurses saying his condition is critical and … there’s a good chance he won’t make it.
“I needed to prepare myself for not seeing him again,” because visitation is not allowed.
“The idea of never seeing him again is just too much for my brain to comprehend. Meanwhile I was coughing constantly and struggling more and more to breathe.
“Then the calls from the hospital’s palliative care team start coming in. They want to know what kind of life support instructions I have. Do I know what Tom wants? I know the calls are to prepare me for the worst and to reinforce the reality of the situation, but I didn’t appreciate them and even though it was supposed to help me somehow, it didn’t.”
Four days later McCann’s situation had worsened to the point that he called an ambulance and had himself admitted.
“It was 3:30 in the morning, and I had been waking up every 15 minutes, feeling like I couldn’t breathe.” McCann was taken to the same hospital as his husband, where he spent most of the day in an emergency isolation room.
“I was given medication to calm my cough. Finally I was able to breathe again. Chest X-rays showed that I had COVID-19 pneumonia. The same as Tom, only not as bad. I was checked into a private room less than 100 feet away from Tom in the Intensive Care Unit.”
Over time both men began to improve. McCann, who was not as ill as his husband, improved at a faster pace.
As with most COVID patients, the two men were initially told they would not be able to see each other.
A caring ICU nurse who became acquainted with them both, decided to step in and override that policy.
Wednesday, July 1, turned out to be a day neither of the men will ever forget.
“The nurse had been thinking about both of us a lot and was convinced that it would help Tom’s recovery for us to see each other,” McCann explained.
“Even knowing that Brian was in the same hospital as I was, I didn’t know where he was or that it was possible for us to see each other,” Costales remembers. “When they first wheeled him into my room, I wasn’t even sure what was happening was real.”
“They let me stay in his room for three hours,” McCann said. “It was a very powerful moment and a very emotional reunion.”
The following evening McCann was discharged. Costales was allowed to come home six days later, continuing to recover at home via Bluetooth technology and daily visits from in-home nurses. Although a staph infection he picked up during his extended stay there required an additional period of hospitalization, he is now currently back at home and on the mend.
Of their battle with the disease, both men have these thoughts to share:
“Bear in mind, COVID-19 means you’re alone for all of this,” McCann offers. “There is no physical contact with family or friends and no one to take care of you. It’s an extremely isolated feeling and at a time when you need help the most.”
Says Costales: “This is like no other virus and has no remote resemblance to a typical virus in terms of contraction or recovery. The threat of full-on symptoms is very real, regardless of any current tactics. While it diminishes with time, and it may be safe to say that my current threat is over, there is always the possibility of secondary exposure. So [for now] there should never be any relaxing of precautions or guarded measures.”
qnotes is part of six major media companies and other local institutions reporting on and engaging the community around the problems and solutions as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.