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‘People need to know how bad this is’: First local patient to test positive with COVID-19 tells story

For the protection of the individuals in this story, The Natchez Democrat agreed to keep their identity anonymous. Those who were in contact with the patient during the period he was contagious have been notified of his diagnosis.

On March 7, a Natchez man woke up not feeling well. He thought he was getting a cold and had a bit of a cough.

The next 16 days turned out to be a living hell — the sickest he had been in his life, he said.

At one point he thought he was going to die.

“At a couple of points, I thought, ‘This is it.’ But I wasn’t ready to go yet,” he said.

The man is the first patient in Natchez to be confirmed with COVID-19.

His physician, Dr. Blane Mire of Internal Medicine Associates in Natchez, urged him to tell his story, fearing many people are not taking the virus and the harm it can do seriously.

‘I have never in my life heard a cough like that.’

“In 41 years, I have never heard him cough like that,” his wife said. “It was the worst thing I have ever heard. I had never heard a sound like that from a cough.”

The man had traveled to San Diego two weeks before becoming sick and was in Nashville one week before.

“He was home for two days before he started to feel sick,” she said.

On March 9, at the urging of his wife, he went to Internal Medicine Associates in Natchez and saw a nurse practitioner, who tested him for the flu, which was negative. The practitioner prescribed him cough medication and an antibiotic and sent him home, his wife said.

Between March 9 and March 13, the man’s condition continued to deteriorate. He had fever, typical flu-like symptoms and a cough that was a constant. By March 13, he had finished all of his prescribed cough medicine.

“I told him he had to go back to the doctor,” his wife said, which he did on March 13.

Back at Internal Medicine Associates, he saw Mire, who ordered a chest X-ray and another flu test, just to be safe. That test was negative, too. He ordered more blood work, and gave him an injection of steroids and an antibiotic, his wife said.

However, because the man had traveled prior to onset of his symptoms, Mire also ordered a COVID-19 test and told the man and woman to quarantine themselves while awaiting test results.

“At that point, the hospital had only a handful of tests,” his wife said. “However, being proactive, Mire’s office asked Suzanne Steckler at Natchez Pathology to put some kits together for them.”

Internal Medicine Associates were using those tests on their patients and sending them off for testing to one of two labs that at the time were qualified to handle the testing. Unfortunately, those tests were being sent to North Carolina, thus the delay in results.

Meanwhile, the patient becomes more ill

In the meantime, the man’s condition continued to deteriorate. His fever persisted, but his cough was relentless and his breathing became labored and was getting more difficult by the minute.

Despite Mire’s daily calls to the patient to check his condition, his wife thought he needed emergency care in the middle of the night.

His wife, who has a good friend who is a nursing supervisor at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge, packed her husband up at 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 18, and drove him to the emergency department at that hospital.

“He was in dire straits,” she said. “We even plugged his CPAP machine, which he uses at night to sleep, into the car so he could breathe on the drive to Baton Rouge. It was that bad.”

The nursing supervisor friend at Our Lady talked to the emergency room doctor, who agreed she should bring her husband in.

“Once we got there, they made me wait outside. We told him (the doctor) he had been tested for the coronavirus and the doctor said, ‘He’s got it. I don’t need a test to tell me that.’”

The man was not admitted to the hospital in Baton Rouge, but was treated in the emergency department for several hours.

“They gave him a bag of fluids — he was severely dehydrated — and they put pain meds in it because of the pain in his chest,” she said. “He has never had high blood pressure, but his blood pressure in the ER was 198 over 120. They attributed that to the chest pain he was in” from such prolonged and constant coughing.

“I also had diarrhea for two weeks,” he said.

The day after the ER visit — six days later, on March 19 — the COVID-19 test came back as positive.

‘People need to know how bad this is.’

Monday — 16 days after his symptoms began — was the first day the man went fever-free.

“People need to know how bad this is. I can absolutely understand why the elderly and those with compromised health are not making it through this illness,” he said.

“People need to be really cautious. It’s as real as can be, and it’s not pretty,” his wife said. “I can see why so many people are dying from this. He has never had asthma, but he could not get any air. People must take this seriously.”

To date, his wife has not shown symptoms of the illness, but she was tested on March 24 as a precaution and the couple remains in quarantine for the safety of themselves and for the safety of others.

Patience and vigilance required now

Physicians here saw the writing on the wall early about the coronavirus.

“We saw it coming. We saw it in New Orleans and Hattiesburg and knew it was a very insidious little virus and that it was going to creep into our community,” Mire said.

Mire, other physicians at the practice and its staff got to work marshaling the clinic’s resources and set up a testing center at its Natchez After Hours Clinic.

“We took a count of our PPE — personal protection equipment everyone has heard about now — and chose to direct what we have to our urgent care clinic and set up testing there because of the easy access into it from the parking lot.”

Mire said the supply chain for such protection gear for healthcare workers dried up quickly.

“There was no local supply chain. No one had anything. We couldn’t even go to the store and get extra sanitizer or sanitizing wipes because people had bought them up,” he said.

An assembly line of sorts for testing and treating patients has developed at the urgent care clinic.

“People call and we ask them to come in, but to call us when they get here,” Mire said. “We actually initiate evaluations while still in their cars. We place the mask on the patient while in the car, and have set aside a special room in the clinic for these patients.”

Patients are evaluated, tested for the flu first, have bloodwork and chest X-rays to rule out any other illness, and if they fit the criteria, they are tested for the coronavirus.

People who are not showing symptoms are not being tested, he said.

Mire said testing is also available at Merit Health Natchez, which has a screening protocol in place. Visit merithealthnatchez.com/covid-19 for instructions on testing at Merit Health Natchez.

“We are trying to all work together in the health care community in Natchez. We said early on, let’s be a partner” in how we respond to this in our community, he said.

Mire said the coronavirus test requires a special sponge-like swab and special transport medium and used those things, with the help of Natchez Pathology’s Steckler, to put those together as makeshift test kits.

“We scrounged up as many as we could,” Mire said. “Suzanne (Steckler) has been phenomenal.”

Mire and his partners identified two labs equipped to evaluate the tests accurately — Labcorp, headquartered in North Carolina and Quest, headquartered in New Jersey.

Mire and his partners chose Labcorp, but because the tests had to be sent to North Carolina, delays in results were as much as eight days.

“We originally sent Labcorp 30 or so tests and expected a three- or four-day turnaround, but that turned into an eight-plus-day turnaround,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to patients and to us to wait that long for results.

“We have since found two additional labs that tell us they can provide 24- to 48-hour turnarounds. We will know tomorrow if that’s true,” he said.

Based on the few cases they know of here and how physicians’ offices are filling up around town with patients who have symptoms, Mire predicts there may be a couple of hundred people who are carrying the virus but are asymptomatic.

“They are walking around shedding the virus and they may go into a store and touch their face and touch a product and leave their fingerprints all over that store,” Mire said. “That’s why we are telling everybody we treat now to think about everyone around you as infected. Make sure to continue to clean your hands with hand sanitizer or if you have the opportunity, wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds and to stay at home.

“If I could, I would get in the car with a bull horn and drive around town shouting to everyone to stay at home,” he said.

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