COVID-19 case numbers have stayed low in Grand County, but some local residents know the dangers of the illness all too well. Don Wiseman, a Moab resident, caught the virus while working as a ski instructor this winter in Crested Butte, Colorado.
Although he was lucky enough to make a full recovery, he spoke to the Moab Sun News to talk about his experience and urge everyone to wear masks, both for the safety of the community and out of respect for those who continue to be vulnerable to the illness.
In March, Wiseman was working in Crested Butte for Vail Resorts, the largest resort operator in the country. Early in the month, the company told staff to begin practicing social distancing and hand washing as reports of COVID-19 began to circulate. By March 14, the company closed all of its 34 North American ski areas to limit viral transmission.
Shortly after that is when Wiseman started feeling sick.
“We all shared a locker room in the basement of a building, and there are probably 300 to 400 people in there every day,” said Wiseman, who suspects he contracted the illness in the poorly ventilated space.
Wiseman started feeling ill on March 17 as he drove home to Moab. Symptoms like headaches, joint pain, and fatigue set in. By the time he finished the drive to Moab, he collapsed into bed.
The next morning he called the Moab Regional Hospital and explained his symptoms, which by this point also included a loss of smell and taste and a low fever. However, testing was highly restricted statewide due to shortages and extreme test backlogs, so the hospital asked him to call back in every morning and self-quarantine at home instead of taking a test.
For the next six days, Wiseman’s aches, pains, and his fever continued, and he kept calling and checking in with the hospital. His sense of smell and taste wouldn’t return for an additional week.
“I've experienced flus and things, but this was pretty over the top and it was hard,” said Wiseman, who reported his recovery lasted for well over three weeks.
“I had episodes where I’d feel really good, and then all sudden I’d feel really exhausted,” he said.
He only confirmed his suspected coronavirus case when he later volunteered for medical assistant training in case of a surge at the hospital and was able to get an antibody test. His test came back positive. Although the antibody tests can be inaccurate, the combination of the specific symptoms, the positive test, and the fact that at the time Gunnison County was in the top four highest case counts in the country, Wiseman’s test was likely correct.
Of the ski patrollers who got sick, Wiseman was one of the lucky ones.
“Around March 23, I learned that a couple of friends in Idaho and in Crested Butte had passed away from COVID. It was becoming really real what had gone on and I was like ‘Oh my god, I just survived this. I could have died,’” he said.
Others were infected and for those who did survive, many are still dealing with the fallout of the disease.
“One gal right now that I know of is still having tremendous problems with breathing, and another patroller is also having issues. We all got the virus within about two weeks of each other,” said Wiseman.
Recently the county passed an ordinance requiring face coverings in public spaces. Before that order, some community members, but not all, were voluntarily covering their faces in public areas.”
With his own knowledge of the struggles of his friends, Wiseman feels strongly about speaking out to urge people to wear masks when in public spaces, for the health and safety of the community.
Wiseman was moved to speak out after a stranger questioned him for wearing a mask while grocery shopping in Moab. Wiseman, surprised, told the customer that while he had already had the illness he chose to wear a mask out of respect for the store’s employees.
“These people [at the grocery store] that have to go to work, they have no other choice. They don't have the financial ability to not work,” said Wiseman.
“Everybody deserves to be respected and not become sick. If they could ever contact trace it to you, how would you feel if it turns out that someone that caught it around you died because they came down with COVID?” he asked.
Wiseman sees the following of basic health precautions as a gesture of respect and care for others in the community. Scientific evidence showing that mask usage in public indoor spaces could drop viral transmission rates is growing, with some studies indicating that if even half of a community wears facial coverings transmission rates could be low enough to eventually stop the pandemic.
Wiseman reported that while he was contacted by the Southeast Utah Health Department after his positive antibody test, the department did not follow up with him, either for guidance, contact tracing or for tracking further antibody development. As someone who has firsthand experience in how important stopping the spread of the disease is, he worries about gaps, errors and delays in the local and nationwide public health system’s response to the pandemic.
“I just hope that we just don't put these policies on the shelf and forget them, and then the next time we come around go through the same routine,” Wiseman said.