What It's Like to Have the Flu During the COVID-19 Scare

What It's Like to Have the Flu During the COVID-19 Scare
Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash
The ongoing spread of COVID-19 has made people around the globe hypersensitive about the possibility of contracting the infection, and understandably so. Given Governor Jared Polis's stay-at-home order for the entire state taking effect March 25, amid rapidly escalating public-health figures related to the virus (more than 1,000 positive tests, 148 hospitalizations and nineteen deaths in Colorado as of that evening), it's no wonder that anyone who coughs tends to be viewed as a potential disease carrier whose mere presence could lead to tragedy...even if the person in question is suffering from nothing more than the benign aftereffects of the plain old, garden-variety flu.

One such Denver woman, whose name we're withholding to protect the innocent, has experienced this firsthand, treated like a pariah in public places for weeks, with no end in sight.

On a Saturday early in March, the woman suddenly began suffering from a racking cough and assorted respiratory issues, compounded by blinding headaches, a severe lack of energy and a low-grade fever. After her symptoms worsened the next day, she booked a doctor's appointment that Monday at which she tested positive for influenza A, the most common flu in any season. She was prescribed Tamiflu and Tessalon Perles (commonly referred to as cough perles) and told to stay home for a few days, by which time she should be well enough to get back to work — and once the fever subsided, she would no longer be infectious.

The week progressed as predicted. By Friday, the woman's fever, headaches and other symptoms had subsided, leaving her only with a lingering cough that she was very careful not to unnecessarily impose on others. Whenever she needed to hack, she used the bat-wing technique, covering her mouth with the inside of her bent elbow.

Concerns about coronavirus were just beginning to spread around the country when she returned to work. On the job, the woman's co-workers didn't ostracize her, since she was able to explain the situation and reassure them that they weren't at risk. But the story was different in pretty much every other setting. If she coughed while walking along a city street or inside a grocery store, she was confronted with the disapproving gazes of everyone around her. It was if she was being silently accused of irresponsibly putting the rest of humanity in danger.

The confusion was understandable, as is clear from this March 12 tweet from Polis comparing COVID-19 and the flu:

The symptoms definitely aren't identical. But there's more than enough common ground for folks to make assumptions that remnants of the flu might be COVID-19.

Since the woman was given the all-clear by her doctor, her cough has stubbornly refused to disappear, and as a result, she found herself making excuses not to leave the house even before Polis ordered people to stay there unless they have essential business. It just seemed simpler to re-watch an episode of Friends for the eightieth time than to invite ridicule from the community at large...or worse, inspire unnecessary fear.

Now that more and more of the system is shutting down (including her place of employment; she's working from home), the ostracism has gotten worse. During a shopping trip for food this week, while observing the proper social distancing, the woman spent the entire time avoiding conversations with anyone, including the checker, because talking can trigger coughs. And when she starts, people nearby scatter.

It's COVID-19's world now. We're just living in it.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts