The day before Benjamin Barksdale Jr. tested positive for COVID-19, he had a fever of 101 degrees, body aches and aching joints.
“I had never experienced pain like that. It was crazy,” he said of the disease. “It was just – weird. It felt like I was 100 years old.”
While people range wildly with their symptoms of COVID-19, from displaying none at all to requiring ventilators and dying, extreme cases are not the norm.
Above video: Some patients recover at home with patient-monitoring program
In fact, Harvard health experts have noted that most people are able to recover from the disease at home.
Yale doctors have also said most cases are mild, even noting practices where many — even most — patients did not require hospitalization.
For Barksdale, his headache made him feel like his head was going to crack open, and it hurt just to bend his knees.
Barksdale, Orlando's fire chief, isolated himself in his high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Eola, even as his wife remained with him. He wore a mask indoors and wiped down everything, and she didn’t seem to catch the virus.
He stopped working for four days, got sleep and fluids, sought out soups and fruit and stayed away from caffeine. He took Tylenol for the fever, and he felt good about the seventh or eighth day. About the ninth or 10th day, he was ready to go and went back to work on June 29.
Most patients don't require hospitalization
Because it’s so unclear how people might react and other factors, physicians urge people to adhere to public health measures that include wearing a mask, physical distancing and proper hand hygiene.
But for those who get COVID-19, the disease is manageable.
“If, God forbid, you get this virus, more than likely, if you’re younger than 60 or 65 and you don’t have underlying medical problems, you’re going to do OK,” said Dr. Joshua Septimus, with Houston Methodist. “And you’re going to recover in a relatively quick fashion.”
Septimus has had about 25 patients with the disease, and only one required hospitalization, which involved a few nights there without the need for intensive care before going home and recovering.
All of his younger patients resumed normal activities within a 10-day period. People in their 70s made full recoveries, too, but underlying medical problems, including obesity, can complicate matters and prolong recoveries.
Doctors stress prevention
Because the disease is deadlier than the flu and there’s no proven medication to treat COVID-19, Septimus urges people to follow mask and distancing guidelines. He said his patients frequently got the disease from people who don’t fully adhere to wearing masks frequently spread the virus at work.
“We are going to have to live with this virus for a long time,” he says.
That means it’s important to continue taking precautions and doing so seriously, Septimus said.
Even though most recovering patients are staying home, there's an unpredictability with how one's body might respond, he said.
He and other doctors stress there’s no typical coronavirus case, and there’s such a spectrum in how people's bodies respond to the disease.
“A typical COVID case … doesn’t seem to exist,” said Dr. Hallie Prescott, of the University of Michigan Health System.
“I think there is this perception out there that, ‘I’m either going to get COVID and I’m going to fully recover’ or ‘I’m going to get COVID and I’m going to die from it,’” said Dr. Emily Brigham of Johns Hopkins University.
Brigham said there's so much in between that many people don't account for and don't think about.
While many people may have mild symptoms that don’t impact their daily lives, such as loss of taste or smell, some may have severe symptoms that escalate rapidly, Brigham said.
Brigham advises patients who do get the disease to stay in close contact with their doctor.
“It’s a spectrum of outcomes,” she said. “It’s not cut and dry.”
Reducing COVID-19 severity
Some doctors suggest that wearing a mask could further reduce the impact of the disease, making cases milder.
Prescott likens it to wearing a seatbelt: Although it doesn’t prevent 100% of vehicular deaths, it can make an injury less severe.
“We cannot overwhelm our hospital systems again and again and again and again,” Brigham said. “We cannot be having providers get sick, which reduces our capacity as well. We cannot be having more patients than our hospitals can take care of in any given time because that is when” death rates will sharply increase, she said.
“It’s so hard to see that happening in some areas of the country and the world right now when there are some interventions that we know work” when broadly supported and implemented, Brigham said, “which includes mask wearing, social distancing and just being cautious.”
Frontline workers mitigating spread
Orlando’s fire department eventually had 108 firefighters test positive for the disease, and an additional 125 had to be in quarantine, affecting nearly half of Barksdale’s force of 536 firefighters.
While the department had a staffing plan in place, Barksdale notes there wasn’t a lapse in service.
His advice for other agencies? “Don’t assume that it won’t happen to you.”
“People just need to realize … it’s not about you,” he said. “It’s about everyone around you.”