For Lara Woolfson, the worst part about testing positive for COVID-19 wasn’t her bedridden week of feverish chills, shallow breathing, and diarrhea. It was the dread, shame, and embarrassment of notifying clients, neighbors, and friends she had seen in the week before the appearance of her first dry little cough.
"You know it’s the responsible thing to do, but that was heartbreaking,” Woolfson, a 36-year-old photographer, said in an interview Sunday.
“I knew how panic-stricken people were, and I didn’t want to add to it," she said. Some of her friends were parents.
Woolfson, who lives in Dorchester, is among nearly 100 people now believed to have been infected after attending a conference put on by Biogen in Boston during the last week of February. The Biogen illnesses continue to make up a significant proportion of the state’s confirmed cases, which totaled 646 as of Sunday afternoon.
Woolfson had been hired to take pictures during the meeting and started to feel the tiniest bit unwell four days after she left the conference.
It was just a slight dry cough when it appeared March 2, Woolfson said. It was certainly nothing she would have ever called the doctor about.
Woolfson didn’t know she had been exposed. She had not yet seen news reports about the coronavirus outbreak among conference attendees.
Woolfson said she places no blame on Biogen, and holds no ill will. “It’s the virus’s fault,” she said.
It would be three more days before she began to truly feel like she was coming down with something. That same day a friend texted her an article about the linkage between the conference and the virus.
That’s when Woolfson knew she should call her doctor.
Her doctor told her to call the hospital. The hospital told her to put on a mask and gloves, winter gloves would do, and drive to the ER bay at the hospital.
Woolfson was met there by a health care worker who looked more like an astronaut in a white spacesuit than a doctor. She was Mount Auburn Hospital’s first case, she said they told her.
Now recovered, Woolfson feels compelled to share her account.
“Everything I had seen in the news just didn’t reflect my story,” she said. “Something in my gut said, ‘you need to tell people you got through this.' "
Thursday was Woolfson’s first official day designated “all clear" by the state health department. She took to Facebook the same day and livestreamed a chat about her experience.
"This knocked me on my ass,” to be sure, she said, but a positive diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence.
The chat has now been viewed more than 16,000 times and Woolfson has fielded a steady stream of messages and questions since.
“People are just starving for concrete information, it seems.”
When she went to the emergency room on Thursday, March 5, she had a 101-degree fever. She tested negative for the flu.
Hospital workers swabbed her for COVID-19, kept her there eight hours, then sent her home. The swabs had to go to the state lab for testing. Her results would be ready in 48 hours they told her.
It would take five days.
“I was anxious, canceling jobs, thinking about all the people I had been in contact with,” Woolfson said.
She had just worked an exceptionally busy two weeks. There were family portraits, and she had spent two days covering another medical conference. She had attended an industry party with more than 300 of her colleagues. She had gone to the grocery store. She had touched the credit card reader there.
“To have to deliver potentially devastating news to clients who rely on me was extremely anxiety-inducing,” Woolfson said. “My reputation is everything; people know me as being incredibly reliable."
Going home without any answers was rough, she said. She had to stave off panic attacks.
“You reach out to doctors thinking they’ll have all the answers and put your mind at ease,” she said.
The Mount Auburn staff was kind and caring, Woolfson said. "They just genuinely didn’t know what was happening at that point in time.”
By nature a calm and rational person, Woolfson said she felt overwhelmed and had trouble sleeping. Her husband was away, traveling for work.
“I just felt like the anxiety moved through my body, up through my abdomen into my throat," Woolfson said.
She kept to official websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tame her anxiety. She reminded herself she was young, healthy, not immune-compromised; she would likely experience this as a really bad flu.
The 101-degree fever stayed with her but the cough disappeared after a couple days, replaced by a tight feeling across her chest.
By Monday, March 9, she was down for the count. Her positive result came the next evening.
For eight days Woolfson was “genuinely bedridden,” overcome with intense aches, too fatigued to lift her head off the pillow.
Fever and thirst were constant; her breathing shallow. When she tried to take a big breath and fill her lungs with air, it made her cough. She lost 6 pounds.
She never got a sore throat, never had a runny or stuffy nose, wasn’t sneezy.
A nurse from the state health department called her daily.
For another photographer from the conference who also tested positive, the coronavirus had very mild effects. She never ran a fever. A light cough and a bit of chest tightness were her primary symptoms, Woolfson said.
Woolfson’s husband, Jon Mercer, returned home from business travel the day after his wife went to the emergency room, just in time for the worst of it.
It is possible to self-quarantine if you live with others, Woolfson said. She kept to her bedroom and religiously wiped down the toilet seat, handle, and sink faucets after every use. He remains in good health.
Punctual dosages every four hours of Dayquil and Nyquil helped her regulate her fever and get through the rough spots, she said.
A thermometer, Gatorade, Lysol, and bleach, were the other essentials, she said.
Woolfson doesn’t know if she’s at risk of reinfection.
“I was under the impression I would be immune now,” she said. “The nurse said they don’t know.”
Woolfson said the slightest of symptoms now “plants a little seed in your brain."
“Is this just anxiety, or am I really hot from a fever?” she said. “All of our basic instincts seem to be flying out the window because we’re so panic-stricken.”
Best advice: If you are experiencing any symptoms whatsoever, assume you have it, Woolfson said.
And if you don’t have any symptoms, keep your distance.
“I’m on the other side. I’m healthy,” Woolfson said. “But I saw how quick and easy and fast I got it and how bad it is.
“We should all just assume we have it at this point.”