When COVID-19 hit, their lives changed forever

It was nearly a year ago that we reported on the first case in Berkeley of a largely unknown illness called the coronavirus. On March 17, 2020, the city went into lockdown and, gradually, Berkeleyans learned to adjust to a new reality, one full of restrictions and unknowns. It’s been a time fraught with the fear of contracting this potentially deadly virus — or infecting others with it. To get a sense of how the coronavirus pandemic has affected people in Berkeley, we asked you to share your experiences. From learning to adapt to life under quarantine, to seeing loved ones get seriously sick or die, here are 13 of those stories. We thank our readers for sharing them with us.

Losing both parents, caring for a sick husband

On March 2, 2020, Andrea Kean, 67, and her husband, David Spinner, 64 (pictured top), boarded a plane at the Oakland airport to visit family. Kean’s parents, both in their 90s, had just moved from Florida to live with her sister in Philadelphia. On the flight, Kean and Spinner were careful: they wore gloves, applied hand sanitizer and wiped their seats with bleach wipes.

“We had heard about China, but we thought we were going away from the danger,” Spinner admitted.

Instead, they flew straight into a COVID-19 hotspot. One month later, Kean’s father was dead, her mother’s already declining health had worsened significantly and Spinner was lying in bed with a serious case of the disease.

The day after getting back to Berkeley, Kean was the first to feel sick with a low-grade fever and body aches. Around the same time, her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend developed a sore throat, but all three recovered quickly. The next day, Spinner got sick, but his symptoms worsened over time. He had chills and a fever, struggling to breathe for weeks.

“There were times when I was afraid of going to sleep, because of my breathing,” said Spinner, whose recovery took about 20 days in all.

Kean, who once worked as a nurse, devoted herself to taking care of her husband, who runs a small publications department for an engineering research center at UC Davis.

“I was terrified that David would be put in the hospital and I’d never see him again.” — Andrea Kean

“I was taking care of David when my dad was in the hospital and then died. I was terrified that David would be put in the hospital and I’d never see him again,” Kean said. “I just decided that I couldn’t worry about anyone except David.”

Kean’s dad died on March 26, two weeks after contracting COVID-19. Her mom was infected with coronavirus around the same time. She recovered from the infection, but not from the loss of her husband. The disease accelerated her decline and she passed away in December.

“My family was just devastated,” Kean said. “I lost both my parents this year. I really didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, to be there for them, or to even go to a funeral.”

The couple struggle with the possibility that they could have been responsible for the death of their family members.

“I feel guilty because I might have given it to my father. We did everything we could — we were wearing gloves and masks and sanitizing. It might not have been me, but it very well could have been,” Kean said.

To this day, Kean and Spinner are among a small number of their friends who have contracted COVID-19, an isolating experience itself.

“It made me feel like we were living in a different world than anybody else,” Kean said. For months, the couple didn’t feel like they could leave their house in the Berkeley Hills, and Kean is still uncomfortable being in a group of people. Spinner hopes their story “opens people’s eyes to how bad the virus can be.” — Ally Markovich

“A war going on inside me… but I was powerless to do anything”

What Golden Gate Fields horse trainer Melanie McDonald first noticed was her runny nose. And she kept sneezing, but she didn’t think much of it. The day it all started, in November last year, the Nevada woman had dropped off a horse at a client’s ranch, then loaded a half-dozen 90-pound hay bales into her truck — a task she still does herself at 82.

When McDonald got back to the racetrack, she began unloading her hay. But her energy flagged and she felt feverish.

“I got two bales unloaded and I couldn’t unload anymore. That was it,” she said.

She lay down on her cot in the tack room at her barn. Other than for the bathroom, she didn’t get up for four days.

McDonald thought she might have COVID-19, but she wasn’t thinking clearly. All she knew was that she had a temperature of 102 and “felt really bad.”

That week, the racetrack started testing workers in response to what would become Berkeley’s largest coronavirus outbreak. But no one knew that at the time.

McDonald’s barn was among the first to get tested. But she realized she couldn’t walk to the testing site, a quarter-mile away, in her condition. On Nov. 12, she called track management to tell them she was sick. Staff immediately sent the chaplain to take McDonald to Alta Bates. The hospital kept her for eight days.

In the ER, McDonald was tested for COVID-19. Her temperature rose. Medical staff sent her to the sixth floor with the other coronavirus patients. Nurses kept a close eye on her oxygen levels and, once, abruptly brought an X-ray machine into her room in the middle of the night. McDonald thinks they were looking for blockages in her lungs.

Her main symptoms were fatigue and shortness of breath.

“It was like there was a war going on inside me. I knew that war was going on, but I was powerless to do anything.”

“OK, God, I screwed up. Give me a pass, or my mom will never let me into heaven.” — Melanie McDonald

McDonald wasn’t sure she would make it. She thought of her mother, who had left careful instructions for what to do upon her own death. She had told McDonald to do the same. So McDonald had written it all down in a book, which she carried with her wrapped in two plastic bags. But she hadn’t told her husband where to find it.

She found herself asking God for forgiveness for her lack of preparation.

“OK, God, I screwed up,” she prayed. “Give me a pass, or my mom will never let me into heaven.”

McDonald ultimately recovered and credits Golden Gate Fields with her survival.

“I did not have the gumption to get myself to the doctor,” she said. “I probably would have kept lying there thinking I would have gotten better. And I probably wasn’t going to.” — Emilie Raguso

Hospitalized, not knowing if you’re coming home

In October, Walter Johnson, 59, flew back to Wisconsin to bury his dad. His father didn’t die from COVID-19, but the illness was top of mind for Johnson: he was acutely aware of the risks he was taking in making the trip.

“I was extremely careful, hand sanitizers and masks.”

At a stop-over at Chicago O’Hare airport, Johnson noticed people sitting shoulder to shoulder at a bar, sipping their cocktails. This image stuck out weeks later, when, back home in southwest Berkeley, Johnson got sick. Symptoms started a week after he got home.

“I was feeling tired, sore throat, and I thought I caught a cold, and then I got really, really sick. I had a fever, and I couldn’t stop coughing and my lungs hurt,” Johnson said.

He tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 7.

First, he told his roommate to leave, to keep him safe. Then things got worse.

“I could barely walk two flights of steps to my house; doing anything I’d lose my wind. I could barely take a shower,” said Johnson, who raised three kids in Berkeley as a single father. “I’d work on getting from the front of the house to the back.”

“What is it about me, about my background, my genetic makeup that made me survive it when so many others have died?” — Walter Johnson

He was diagnosed with pneumonia. Before a visit to his doctor at UCSF Medical Center, Johnson told loved ones: “I didn’t know if I was coming back or not.”

But was sent home with “a heavy dose of antibiotics.” He quarantined for weeks.

“I had a lot of friends and family bringing me soup; a lot of different types of soup,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t taste. I couldn’t do anything. I just forced myself to drink a lot of soup.”

Gradually, Johnson, 59, a retired landscaping and maintenance worker, regained strength. His breath came easier. His taste and appetite returned. He asked a friend to pick up a sandwich for him at Berkeley Bowl: “Tuna fish, yes!” Johnson said.

Johnson is a Potawatomi Indian, a tribe of the upper Midwest. American Indians have been hard hit by the virus, and he wonders: “I’m full-blooded American Indian. What is it about me, about my background, my genetic makeup that made me survive it when so many others have died?”

He is also a surfer, at home in the chilly Northern California waters. As soon as he felt better, he took to the surf.

“I paddled out and I caught one wave, but I was so out of breath, I could barely breathe, I went back up to the beach and caught my breath,” he said.

“After we got out of the water I felt so rejuvenated and refreshed. Even though I could barely breathe, it still felt really good.” — Kate Rauch

Who’s going to look after Grandpa when everyone’s sick?

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Tim Alley, 53, came home from a run so exhausted that he could barely stand up. He spent the next day in bed with a fever. Luckily, by the time his positive COVID-19 test came back the following week, Alley’s symptoms had receded. But his wife, Didi Alley, and their two elementary-school-aged kids began to feel sick.

Alley, who is a self-employed business owner, knew the situation was about to get complicated. His father-in-law, Geoffrey Linburn, 81, lives on the bottom floor of the family’s three-story home in the Claremont neighborhood. Linburn got into a severe bike accident three years ago. Since then, he’s needed a caregiver on hand 24-hours a day and he gets his nutrition through a feeding tube. Linburn also has Parkinson’s disease and sometimes has difficulty breathing.

Alley’s wife and the kids tried to stay away from Linburn, who Alley calls Grandpa, and the in-home caregiving staff. Everyone got tested, and two days later they were notified that the kids, Didi, and all the caregivers had COVID-19. Linburn’s test results were delayed, so they had to assume he hadn’t been infected. But with all the caregivers self-isolating away from the family, Alley and his wife were in a bind.

“This guy’s like a cat, he’s got like nine lives.” — Tim Alley

“Our choice was: does nobody take care of Grandpa because we’re supposed to stay away from him, or does one of us take care of him even though we’re positive?” Alley said. Given Linburn’s condition, there was no way around it. Didi put on a mask and did her best to take care of her father with as little contact as possible.

After a few days of fever, fatigue, and general discomfort, Didi and the kids were on the mend. Linburn never showed any COVID-19 symptoms, but when his delayed test results finally came through, it turned out that he’d been infected the whole time.

“This guy’s like a cat, he’s got like nine lives,” Alley said about his father-in-law. Doctors predicted that he would die years ago. Alley laughed with amazement, “And here he is, dealing with COVID on his own with very little caregiving, and he doesn’t have any problems.” — Noah Baustin

Berkeley photographer faces coronavirus impacts on his family

On Christmas morning, Berkeley resident Pete Rosos got a text from the Alameda County Public Health Department. He immediately knew what it meant.

“I’m looking at my two kids and my wife and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve just given everyone in this house COVID,’” said Rosos, who is 47 and works as a photographer. He got everyone’s attention and shared the news that his test came back positive.

“Once you become a parent, you want to ensure that your kids are as safe as possible,” Rosos said.

But that hadn’t been easy during the pandemic. Last March, just as the pandemic lockdown went into effect, Rosos was laid off from his job at the Academy of Art University. He jumped at the opportunity to pick up more work as Berkeleyside’s contributing photographer, even though photographing people in person, even while observing social distancing and wearing PPE, increased his risk of bringing COVID home.

“Because if I didn’t have the [Berkeleyside] job, I don’t think I would have had the money to make it through the time that we did,” Rosos said.

By New Year’s Eve, Rosos’ wife, Kana Rosos, could barely talk. “She was monosyllabic, stabbing things out in basic descriptions because if she talked any more then she would be coughing and out of breath,” Rosos said.

Rosos brought his wife to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, where staff ushered her into the hospital, leaving him outside. In that moment, horrible images he’d seen on the news rolled through his mind. He imagined COVID patients laid out, hooked up to ventilators, mixed with the sound of his wife’s labored breathing.

“You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, my God,’” Rosos said.

After five days in the hospital, Kana was well enough to return to their home in South Berkeley. By the second week of January, she felt mostly normal, with the exception of an altered sense of taste and occasional aches.

In the end, the whole family contracted the disease, but no one else had significant symptoms. Pete Rosos feels lucky that things didn’t turn out worse. Although he said they’re not totally out of the woods, he added: “We still haven’t gotten any of the medical bills.” — Noah Baustin

A funeral but without much-needed shoulders to cry on

Last April, Jeffrey Louis Lazarus III, lost consciousness while at home in the Berkeley Hills. It was just seven months after the 66-year-old had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His wife, Susan Kegeles, called 911 and Lazarus was brought to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

Due to pandemic restrictions, Kegeles, 67, a Professor of Medicine, Emeritus at UCSF, was the only family member allowed inside the building. For hours, she sat alone in an empty waiting room. She couldn’t even raise a friend on the phone to keep her company because it was the middle of the night.

Early on the morning of April 24, hospital staff brought Kegeles into a room to be with Lazarus, who was unconscious. He died two minutes later, succumbing to internal bleeding brought on by the cancer. The experience was a complete shock to Kegeles, who had thought that chemotherapy might keep her husband alive for years.

In the days after her husband’s death, Kegeles learned that, under COVID-19 rules, only 10 people, including a rabbi, were allowed to come to his burial. She took on the impossible task of telling many people in her life that they couldn’t attend their friend’s funeral.

It was devastating “not to be able to sit with people and receive hugs and hold hands.” — Susan Kegeles

Family and friends later gathered online to sit shiva, a Jewish mourning tradition. Many people showed up and shared stories about Lazarus, who was a clinical psychologist working in private practice. It was moving but fleeting.

“It lasts for an hour and a half, then it’s over,” Kegeles said. It was devastating “not to be able to sit with people and receive hugs and hold hands and literally cry on people’s shoulders.”

Nine months later, Kegeles is still adjusting to life without her partner of 42 years. Now living alone, the house feels empty. Lazarus’ absence sneaks up on Kegeles in unexpected moments.

“I’ll go into the bedroom and it’s dark and I’ll be tiptoeing around,” she said. “Until I remember that I’m not going to wake Jeff up.” — Noah Baustin

A child rushed to the ER, the scariest time of her mom’s life

Kids weren’t supposed to get it. And if they somehow did — after all, this new coronavirus brought surprises every day — it was supposed to be mild, not a threat.

And so in March 2020, when CC Miksza’s 2-year-old daughter got what seemed like a bad cold, she leaned in with all her maternal cold care instincts, keeping her home from daycare, giving her fluids and tissues for the runny nose.

But things got worse. The coughing became more frequent. And soon, her daughter was struggling to breathe.

“She fell asleep in my lap, and was making labored breathing sounds,” said Miksza, 34, who asked that her daughter not be named to protect her privacy.

She called the advice nurse.

“If you can’t get in the car this second call 911,” the nurse told Miksza. She was driving, and then, “I have a firm memory of running, holding her mostly unconscious into the ER.”

The diagnosis of COVID-19 didn’t come right away. Testing wasn’t reliable then, and her daughter tested negative. “People were still trying to figure this out,” Miksza said. “Yes this is COVID, no this isn’t COVID, yes this is COVID.”

“Initially she was pretty unresponsive, she could barely talk, her whole body was shaking.” — CC Miksza

The symptoms told a pandemic story, however.

“Initially she was pretty unresponsive, she could barely talk, her whole body was shaking,” said Miksza, a Berkeley Unified middle school counselor. “Her oxygen numbers kept going low. She wasn’t responsive at all. It’s a blur to me. They were doing a whole bunch of things.”

The two spent the night at Kaiser Oakland in a locked room equipped with an alarm — a COVID-19 protection measure. Miksza couldn’t leave, and her husband, the girl’s father, couldn’t come in.

With morning, things started to change. The toddler was stable. And, before the day’s end, she was discharged, armed with inhalers and medications. She was weak for days, and there was one more ER visit for a fever. But a corner had been turned.

And then Miksza started to get sick with fever and exhaustion. “Lifting an eyelid was a huge effort,” she said. She was coughing and gasping for breath. A chest X-ray diagnosed COVID-19.

The family, who lives in West Berkeley, quarantined strictly at home for a month, never leaving the house. Miksza’s husband and older daughter never really got sick, which Miksza thought was amazing. Neighbors kept them going, she said.

“We opened the front door to the bag of groceries left for us.”

Looking back, Miksza said she and her family were probably unknowingly exposed to two people who ended up with COVID-19 before her daughter got sick.

Of the experience, she said: “It was probably the scariest time of my life.” — Kate Rauch

A death amid coronavirus outbreak in Berkeley care home raises questions

Seventy-two-year-old Shirley J. Michel died at the Elmwood Care Center in Berkeley on Dec. 28, 2020. Her partner of 23 years, James Littles, still has questions about her death.

“All she had to do was make it home and I would have taken care of her,” Littles told Berkeleyside. “All they had to do was keep her safe. I don’t know whether they did that or not.”

Michel did not die of COVID-19, Littles said, but the pandemic may have affected her care, as well as how the Elmwood responded to his questions about Michel’s passing.

The couple originally met at an AA recovery dance and lived in Berkeley for a few years on Haste Street before ultimately moving to Oakland.

In November last year, Littles said Michel — who had already spent months in rehab at the Elmwood earlier in the year for some medical issues — began getting progressively weaker. She lost her appetite and had a bad cough. A few days after Thanksgiving, she went into the hospital and was then transferred to the Elmwood.

“I did not know when she went in that I’d never see her again.” — James Littles

“I did not know when she went in that I’d never see her again,” said Littles, who is also 72 years old. On Dec. 28, the Elmwood informed Littles that Michel had become unresponsive after breakfast and was ultimately pronounced dead. But that was all they told him, he said.

Littles said he’d been disturbed when he Googled the Elmwood and read about the large COVID-19 outbreak at the facility in December, as well as about the problems described by relatives of other patients.

When Littles tried to get information about Michel’s death from the Elmwood, no one would call him back. He said he’d left many messages with no response. When he did reach someone, it felt like they were evasive and defensive.

It took more than a month for him to get Michel’s cause of death from the coroner’s office. For weeks, he said, the coroner had no record at all of her passing.

Littles said the Elmwood should have had systems in place to allow patients to video chat with their loved ones so they weren’t so alone. And he wondered whether Michel had been watched as closely as she should have been, particularly given the demands the coronavirus outbreak must have placed on Elmwood staff.

Littles said he had sent Michel many cards when she was at the Elmwood, but he wasn’t sure she’d ever seen them. After her death, he’d asked staff if he could have them back. They said they would let him know if they could find them.

“This is what you tell somebody who just lost a person?” he said. “It was like they wanted to sweep me under the rug and go on about their business. It’s just not right. People need to know more when they are trusting that they are sending loved ones someplace to heal.” — Emilie Raguso

Coronavirus claimed a Berkeley caregiver on whom many depended

Pureza Fernandez was always meticulous about sweeping up her street corner in North Berkeley near Ohlone Park. Even at 87 years old, she did it twice a day and was very proud of keeping the outside of her home neat and tidy.

“She would sweep up so much that she would sweep up the neighbor’s yard,” said Emily Hall, her niece, who called her Auntie Puring. “It would bug her, she would cross the street and say ‘I hate this’ sweep it up…she would be out in the rain doing it.”

Hall remembers Fernandez sweeping up the street days before she was rushed to the emergency room on Aug. 23 last year, unable to breathe. She had been asymptomatic the day before, but tested positive for COVID-19 at Alta Bates and passed away two weeks later, on Sept. 6.

Fernandez was a teacher in the Philippines, but when she moved to the United States in 1987 to provide a better life for her daughter, who had a developmental disability, she shifted to caring for her, as well as for senior citizens at a care home. She lived in Berkeley for 32 years, and was a cheerful, friendly woman who enjoyed being with family, decorating and tending to the jade plants in her garden, Hall said. She also played the piano, accordion and guitar.

“I don’t know if I ever saw her be angry, ever. I’m sure she did, but I never saw it,” said Hall, who had a language barrier with Fernandez because she spoke a Filipino dialect. “I rarely ever saw her sick. She was 87 years old and she was still outside.”

Hall describes Fernandez as being resourceful and patient. She would collect cans for California Refund Value to support her family.

“She really did live to provide for her kids,” Hall said. “That’s why so many people of color get this, because it’s necessary to work, to be out there collecting cans.”

Fernandez — who is survived by her five children, nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, two sisters and a brother — was living with her family in a small in-law unit when she contracted COVID-19, and the virus spread to her two daughters, son-in-law and others in the days afterward. Fernandez’s daughter was hospitalized, but everyone other than Fernandez ultimately recovered. — Supriya Yelimeli

In the grasp of long-haul COVID-19

Jen H. perfectly remembers the day last March that she got sick.

“It was 1 p.m. and I sneezed. It was an unusual sneeze. I felt it pull all the way into my lungs. Within two hours, I could tell I had it,” she said.

Her lungs started to feel like they were being compressed and squeezed, and later, like they were burning: “it felt like claws were scratching me from the inside.” Now, ten months later, Jen is still not free from the grasp of “long COVID.”

Jen, 54, was bedridden for six weeks in her house in the McGee Spaulding neighborhood, plagued by sweats and chills, “unable to do anything but lay in bed and hope that I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital.” By the third week of illness, her condition had deteriorated: on top of the virus, she had contracted pneumonia, which took almost a month of antibiotics to cure. The front of her hair went grey, and two months later, returned to its original color.

By May, Jen was past the danger point, but long-term COVID continued to debilitate her. It wasn’t until late September that she could finally do the dishes.

“You have no control. It’s like robbers robbing a house and leaving enormous amounts of damage.” — Jen H.

“Before, picking up one dish was too heavy. Even the action of wiping a dish with a sponge hurt my lungs.” Slowly, she added chores to her repertoire — she still can’t vacuum — and began, cautiously, walking up the five steps to her house. She is hoping to start doing walks around her neighborhood soon.

In June, Jen started doing freelance work again — she’s a surface pattern and textile designer — but she suffered memory and concentration issues some have termed “COVID brain.” At this point, she is able to do about half the work she was doing before she contracted the virus ten months prior. Her lungs still bother her and she has breathing problems that prevent her from breaking down a cardboard box or carrying heavy grocery bags.

“I’m worried it’s going to affect me the rest of my life,” Jen said. “It’s bizarre. You have no control. It’s like robbers robbing a house and leaving enormous amounts of damage. The virus just goes in you and does whatever it wants to do. I get emotional when I think about that.” — Ally Markovich

Forced to be a first-time grandma from afar

When Staci Prado’s only daughter became pregnant, it was a dream come true. But becoming a grandmother for the first time in the middle of a pandemic has been nothing like what the 55-year-old Prado had expected. Due to safety precautions, Prado waited six months to meet Forest. She watched him grow through a steady stream of photographs and videos.

Finally, in January, Prado packed a suitcase full of belated Christmas presents — bathtub toys, friction cars, and a baseball cap — left her home in West Berkeley and boarded an Amtrak train at Berkeley Station. Six hours later, she made it to her daughter’s place in Paso Robles.

“He hasn’t said Ya-Ya yet but he will, because I send him audio messages all the time.” — Staci Prado

“When we got to the house, I broke down and cried, of course,” Prado said. “I spent all weekend just staring at him and poking him to make sure he was real. He is to die for.” She danced with Forest, now an active 6-month old, and tried to teach him to say Ya-Ya. “He hasn’t said Ya-Ya yet but he will, because I send him audio messages all the time.”

Still, the threat of COVID-19 loomed over the visit. Prado’s daughter Danielle squirted hand sanitizer often and, as badly as she wanted to, Prado never gave her grandson a hug. She worries that Forest won’t recognize her, since she was wearing a mask during the visit. After the visit, Prado, a freelance photographer, resolved to move closer to her family by her grandson’s first birthday.

“My sites are set on doing whatever I can to be near my grandson,” she said.

Her only regret is having to leave Berkeley, a city she has fallen in love with. — Ally Markovich

An extrovert who lives alone learns to be a hermit

Prior to the pandemic, 87-year-old Tobey Wiebe maintained a busy schedule. She ushered at four different theaters — she especially loves Catalan conductor and viol player Jordi Savall — and worked out at the YMCA.

“Back in the day, I won quite a few t-shirts for my weight-lifting,” Wiebe bragged. “I miss the Y terribly, not only for the exercise but for the social contact. I have a lot of friends there.”

“I was on Kaiser’s speakerphone for four hours. I baked two loaves of bread, sautéed mushrooms, and listened to that horrible music.” — Tobey Wiebe

Compared to her usual bustle, the pandemic has left little in the way of a social life for Wiebe.

“We’ve become hermits. It’s not in our nature to be hermits,” Wiebe said of her community of friends. Wiebe’s husband passed away in September 2018, leaving her to endure the pandemic without a partner. “We had been married 62 years. That’s a hell of a long time.”

But Wiebe is not one to wallow. Three times a week, she goes for walks in her Thousand Oaks neighborhood, climbing the hills and stopping to rest at Raxakoul cafe, where she is quick to strike up neighborly conversation. She calls her friends often and even convinced her son to let her shop at Berkeley Bowl (her friend Ruth was doing it, too).

Two weeks ago, Wiebe waited patiently to get an appointment for her COVID-19 vaccine.

“I was on Kaiser’s speakerphone for four hours. I baked two loaves of bread, sautéed mushrooms, and listened to that horrible music. But I was willing to pay the price,” said Wiebe, who got the first dose of the vaccine on Sunday. She celebrated with her son, who came over for tea in her garage.

“I’m waiting to be able to invite people over so I can try out all my new recipes on them,” she said, laughing. — Ally Markovich

A Berkeley family recovers, but coronavirus symptoms stay on

In early March 2020, coronavirus was still a distant concept in the Bay Area, albeit one that was registering more and more through a fast-moving wave of news about China, Seattle, northern Italy and cruise ships.

The Zimmermans, like many Berkeley families, tried to keep pace with developments, and tried to stay safe.

Then the colds hit. At least, they thought they were colds.

“At first, it just seemed like a cold, but after about a week we started feeling sicker,” said Sara Zimmerman, a lawyer working on equity and inclusion, who said she and her two teenage children all got sick.

“I was 100% convinced we all had a cold.”

“For about a month we were utterly fatigued and could not stand up for more than a few minutes. At one point I literally fell over.” — Sara Zimmerman

Before the symptoms got too bad, the kids went to school. Soon, however, schools closed. Meanwhile, at the Zimmerman house in the San Pablo Park neighborhood, there were “coughs, aches, extreme fatigue, chills, wheezing, headaches, dizziness, chest pain, weird rash, and one of my kids got bronchitis,” said Zimmerman.

“For about a month we were utterly fatigued and could not stand up for more than a few minutes. At one point I literally fell over.”

Early in the pandemic, tests were given only to people with a known exposure to the virus. The Zimmermans — initially — couldn’t make this link. And they didn’t have fevers or dry coughs, considered primary symptoms of COVID-19.

It was a confusing time.

But as they felt worse, knowledge of the virus grew, and soon all their symptoms made the list. Their doctor made a positive diagnosis.

“The teens were sick for six weeks. I was sick for eight weeks. This was really unprecedented. Being sick for eight weeks was a whole different thing,” Zimmerman said. Her husband never got sick, her youngest child spiked a fever that didn’t last long.

The family hunkered down. “We spent a lot of time snuggled on the couch and doing puzzles,” she said. “We felt pretty out of it.”

With time, their exposure became clear. Cruise ships, it turned out, weren’t so distant from everyday Berkeley life. The Zimmerman teens were in an exercise class with a passenger on one of the ships with a COVID-19 outbreak, who participated before he knew he’d been exposed. “It all seemed really remote for everybody,” Zimmerman said.

The children are now better. Zimmerman’s symptoms stretched into the summer, her chest hurt with exertion and she was diagnosed with asthma for the first time. She considers herself a COVID-19 long hauler.

“I’m mostly better now, but I feel so much sympathy for people still suffering,” she said.

She doesn’t take the situation for granted.

“We were really lucky for how sick we were,” she said. “It makes me feel disappointed in our national response to this whole thing. Us getting sick was bad luck for us. But for so many people who’ve gotten sick and died, this could have been prevented.” — Kate Rauch