A Week With the Coronavirus: ‘We Knew It Wasn’t the Flu’

Joseph Papa and John-Stuart Fauquet. Photo: Alanna Yeargain

Joseph Papa and his husband John-Stuart Fauquet both caught COVID-19 following separate work trips to New York earlier this month. The couple met in the city in 2012 and moved four years later to Richmond, Virginia, where Papa, a freelance book publicist, has family. Fauquet, 37, had been in his Lexington Avenue office at the same time as another person who later tested positive for the coronavirus. He started having a fever and a dry cough on March 12 and likely passed the virus to Papa, also 37, who started showing symptoms a couple days later. 

On March 13, they went to see their general physician who gave them a test for COVID-19 and told them to start quarantining. The doctor called and told them they had the virus on Tuesday. They have stayed at home since seeing their doctor, save for short walks with their dog, Robbie.

Joseph Papa: I had been to New York twice in the past month. I was there for the release of Gigi Levangie’s novel, Been There, Married That. (She also wrote the screenplay for Stepmom.) And for a book called Legendary Children, an LGBTQ history tied to RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m a publicist. I lived in New York for ten years, moved back to Richmond in the fall of 2016, and started my own freelance book-publicity company. So much of publishing is in New York, so I’m up there a lot for book launches and media.

My husband was already in New York, starting five days before I came up. He is an executive recruiter and his firm is based there. His office was at 575 Lexington and a recent article in the Daily News said that someone in the building tested positive. He did not work in the WeWork where someone has tested positive. We both took a plane back to Virginia on March 4.

There’s no real way of knowing how I got it, but he started showing symptoms first on March 12. It’s likely he had it first and I contracted it from him.

The fever was first, then chills, body aches, and just an extreme fatigue. The highest fever we had was 100.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The fever was brought down by Tylenol, but as soon as the Tylenol wore off, the fever came back.

The cough was just a dry, fairly unremarkable cough. The respiratory symptoms for us — and we’re both healthy — have been shortness of breath, being very easily winded, and at times just feeling like we aren’t taking in full breaths. We’re breathing normally, but you’re only getting 80 percent of what you think.

Walking across the house is usually no problem. Yesterday I got inspired and tried to clean the house a little bit, but that took a lot out of me. And then I walked the dog [a 30-pound, three-year-old mixed-breed named Robbie]. Usually I do two to three mile walks a day. I’ve been doing not even a half mile and I feel like I went for a run.

When my husband’s symptoms started, he called his doctor and said, “I have a fever and chills,” but we didn’t tell them at the time that someone in his office building had tested positive. They told us to come in. We drove to our primary care doctor in Henrico County, ten minutes away.

It felt a little like a movie. We were put into a different section, they were wearing different clothing. It was like the opening scene of Contagion where they start doing those tests. It was strange. We were tested for flu, which was negative. We were swabbed in the throat and nose for corona. If you’ve ever had a strep test, it’s essentially that. I’d never had a nose swab. It’s an odd feeling. I hear they’re shifting to a spit test. The doctors were wearing masks. They had plastic draped across their body. I don’t think it was the full-body stuff, although they’ve switched to that now.

They told us, essentially, to presume positive and stay home, self-quarantine, drink water, treat the symptoms, and remember to eat because we might not feel like eating. And to let them know if respiratory symptoms got really bad. We didn’t have any at the time — that’s the big thing they’re looking for — but they got worse as the week went on.

On Tuesday, they called. The test was positive and they wanted to check in on our symptoms, that we didn’t need to go in with any sort of respiratory thing. They told us we would be hearing from the health department. The health department called yesterday. They asked about everywhere we had been in the past two weeks and every person we had been in contact with within six feet. They wanted addresses and as much information as possible.

We did remember everywhere we’ve been because we had already started to worry about it. We were presuming positive. We’re both calendar-keepers. As soon as we started showing symptoms, we didn’t see anybody.

We didn’t tell anyone officially until we received the confirmation. We were holding out hope that it was just a bad cold. We knew it wasn’t the flu. We told a small number of friends who could help nearby and who could bring groceries. Friends have been really lovely. I’ve been overwhelmed with the outpouring of offers for things. They’ve been bringing bourbon, flowers, more lettuce than we know what to do with. We’re both vegan, which presents a unique challenge when people are trying to be kind at the grocery store. Soup. Friends have made soup for us. And one friend asked for a specific grocery list with locations in the grocery store for things. That’s a perfect way to complete a task for somebody. We got our normal big jug of iced coffee, blueberries, Triscuits, and snack food. The day-to-day stuff.

I think it was a wake-up call for both our parents. My parents are here in Virginia and my husband’s father is in Florida. They’re of the generation of people who were not taking it seriously. My mom was still going to Target. My husband’s father was still going to church. And my dad had two appointments at the veterans’ hospital in Virginia, but he canceled them. He’s been going to get groceries at six in the morning. He’s starting to take precautions.

We’ve been without a fever for 24 hours, but still have body chills, aches, shortness of breath, the exhaustion, and we’re really very tired all the time. All guidance points to us not going into a medical facility. We’re not wearing masks inside because we both have it and no one is coming in here. We’ve had friends drop off Clorox wipes and Lysol. Once a day, just for our own peace of mind, I wipe things down. We sleep pretty well. That is one thing that has not been interrupted. We’re exhausted and we can breathe pretty well, but it’s not like when you have a cold and you wake up because you’re stopped up. That’s been okay.

I still have to walk the dog. I’ve been practicing staying six feet or more away from everyone. The dog is confused because people keep coming to the door to drop stuff off and we’ll talk through the front door. We’ll wave and talk. He’s pretty social, he loves people. He’s confused as to why people aren’t coming in. He wants to go on longer walks. We have a nice backyard, but that’s not sufficient for him. We did some research and the WHO had guidance on dogs. Seems like they cannot catch it.

We were on the front page of the local paper [the Richmond Times-Dispatch] today. Pretty sure people are going to steer clear. It’s not like a New York City street — if I go in one direction it’s shops and restaurants, but most of those are closed. The local TV station did something on us too. The homophobia that has come out of that has been a surprise. That’s been an odd side effect of going public. I’ve had a stranger write me on Facebook and ask me if I knew what AIDS was and tell me this was probably AIDS — and if it wasn’t, it should be. I had to laugh about it. It’s how I approach things, with sarcasm usually. I’m fortified for it, I have a thick skin, but I hadn’t really anticipated that being a piece of all this.

We have been doing FaceTime chats with friends. I kind of laughed at the idea, but it’s really lovely to have that connection and catch up with people. We’ve all talked about trying to do a movie night, a couple of us watch the same mindless movie. We are preparing to find those things to do because I think we’re going to be doing this for a while.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A Week With the Coronavirus: ‘We Knew It Wasn’t the Flu’