Sean McGrath tested positive for COVID-19 and started driving.
The 43-year-old from Castle Shannon was hours from home at a family summer camp he’d planned to attend with his 11-year-old daughter when the results of a 15-minute PCR test put an end to that.
“My daughter melted down in tears because she couldn’t go to camp, and my next thought — because I now have a seven-and-a-half hour drive home — was: Who do I need to call?”
Sean called work and family and doctors. He retraced his steps and arrived at a pair of socially distanced South Hills gyms as the likeliest source of his infection.
But Sean also started doing something that many COVID-19 patients haven’t — he started documenting the experience (minutiae, lethargy, and all) with blog entries on Facebook.
If the goal is getting people to take COVID-19 seriously and act accordingly, knowing and seeing people with the disease is an important part of that process.
And first-hand accounts from patients like Sean and Lawrenceville circus performer Jason Kirin are doing just that. They’re also helping researchers glean new information about how the virus moves and manifests.
Sean’s posts — filled with exhaustion and OTC remedies — have inspired others to jump in the comments and share their own first- and second-hand experiences with COVID-19.
When we caught up with Sean by phone late last week, he was still exhausted but encouraged by that dialogue. He said he doesn’t think we’re talking about COVID-19 enough, which may seem impossible, but hear him out.
(Portions of our conversation follow here, edited for clarity and length.)
The Incline: First of all, how are you feeling?
Sean: You know, luckily my symptoms have been pretty mild. Both my daughter and I, we did our coughing fits. We take cough medicine and they seem to go away. I wake up with a sore throat.
But for me, the hardest part is staying awake. It’s crazy. I could just sit there and go to sleep. I might be able to fall asleep on command at this point. I’ve read about people getting extremely tired and, yeah, it’s pretty bad. I’m drinking cold brew coffee now because I have a 4:30 p.m. meeting. Hopefully that keeps me awake.
The Incline: So you’re still working?
Sean: I’m working half days from home. I’m a network engineer. I do IT work.
I would say I’m able to work about half a day. I’m pretty lethargic the other half. My work and coworkers have been very accommodating. My local union sent me chicken noodle soup.
In order for me to go back to work, I need two negative tests at least 48 hours apart. I have a couple of weeks before that happens.
Once I finally test negative, hopefully I can donate some plasma and do what I can to help others.
The Incline: Tell us about testing positive.
Sean: My daughter and I drove to family summer camp to get a vacation and get away. I read that they were doing COVID-19 testing there and they were taking proper precautions. I thought it was safe. So we drove up, spent the night in a hotel, and when we went to check at camp on Monday morning, they tested everyone over 13, and that’s when I tested positive.
My daughter was not tested but we’re assuming since we spent 15 hours in a car together… Her doctor wants us to act like she does have it, so she’s quarantining.
The Incline: What happened after you tested positive?
Sean: My mind went to some dark places on the drive home, it really did. And that was because you hear the horror stories. I’m only a few days into it and I still have a little bit of fear I could take a downturn. That’s the hard part. We don’t know. It’s like trying to roll double sevens and what happens if you don’t? My concern was partly that. I thought a lot about my daughter and how she was going to react (to the virus).
I called work because there’s two people that I had extended conversations with there and I started thinking — I almost felt guilty to hear that I was infected and I didn’t know I had it and I potentially could have given it to other people.
The Incline: Are you any closer to knowing where you caught this?
Sean: I did go to two gyms without a mask. One gym was not populated — I think there were two or three people there. And the Friday before going to the summer camp I went to a larger gym and then tested positive three days later. I can make assumptions.
Grocery shopping, etcetera, I’ve always worn my mask. Gyms are the only place I didn’t. And both gyms had safety protocols in place. The equipment was spaced out.
The county’s case numbers were also much lower then.
The Incline: Why did you decide to start chronicling this experience?
Sean: The reason I wanted to post about it was the fact that not too many people are posting about having COVID-19. In fact, I’ve had a number of people tell me I’m the first person they know who has contracted it.
The second part is that I was asymptomatic and had a stuffy nose that I attributed to allergies because it was so mild, and yet I have COVID-19. I wanted to raise awareness of that.
There’s a number of us who could have it and just don’t know, or they’re passing it off as something else. That’s why I started doing this. And I kind of want to take people on the ride with me.
The Incline: How have the posts been received?
Sean: I did have a lady who asked me for samples of saliva and sweat to train her dog to be a COVID-19 test dog. I politely declined. (…) As much as I wanted to help, I don’t think I could.
I received a lot of positive responses. I personally think the safety measures put in place locally have done a good job. I don’t want to make this a political conversation. I want to take people for a ride and let them know how it feels, and let people know it’s there, it’s here, and any of us can get it.
It’s not a scarlet letter. But it’s in everyone’s interest that we communicate.