For 22 nights in March and April, Stephen Jimenez’s only goal was to see the next sun rise.
An employee and resident of the Town of Huntington, Jimenez had one of the earlier cases of coronavirus in Suffolk County. It began with gastrointestinal symptoms and quickly progressed to his lungs.
“I thought I just had an upset stomach, and the next thing I knew it was horrendous,” he said. “My symptoms were at their worst from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. They say the beast comes out at night, and the beast came out. I was struggling to breathe and I was fighting for every minute.”
Jimenez, who is still hampered by intermittent chest pains and other lingering effects, has words of caution for fellow Long Islanders who may be getting complacent as the pandemic approaches its ninth month.
“You can’t take it lightly; you can’t let your guard down,” he said. “If you get it, you don’t know how your body is going to react to it.”
At 1.7 percent on Oct. 24, the COVID-19 positivity rate in Suffolk County remains relatively low. But with schools now open, the chillier weather bringing more people indoors and COVID fatigue setting in, cases have been inching up in recent weeks.
“Definitely there is COVID fatigue, which is understandable,” said Dr. Eve Krief, a pediatrician with Huntington Village Pediatrics. “It’s hard to stay apart; it doesn’t feel natural to distance ourselves from friends and family. It’s not fun to live like this.”
But it’s important to stay the course and continue masking, social distancing and hand-washing, and for people who feel unwell to get tested for the virus, she added.
“As a pediatrician and a mom, I know kids want to play together, and we all want to do the things we normally do around the holidays,” she said. “But it’s very important to not let our guard down and become complacent, especially as we’re heading indoors, where the virus can be spread more easily.”
Compliance is particularly important to protect those people in the community who are at higher risk for serious complications and death from the virus.
In addition to advanced age, risk is higher among people with heart or lung disease, diabetes or immunosuppressive conditions like cancer or who are taking immunosuppressive medications. About 54 million Americans have pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable, according to Krief.
For instance, Christian Siems, a Huntington resident who had a heart transplant operation five years ago at age 21, takes medication that makes him immunosuppressed.
“Most people are wearing masks, but some people are getting more complacent, and it makes me frustrated,” Siems said. “It’s selfish, and it’s not right. They have to think that there are people that might be more susceptible than they are.”
Siems avoids any place where there might be a crowd, but everyone, not just people in high-risk groups, needs to follow the safety guidelines, Krief said.
“Some people are more vulnerable than others, but it’s important that everyone behave responsibly,” she said. “Most people are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, but everybody has the ability to spread the virus.”
Some people don’t take COVID seriously because they have not seen the virus’s impact first-hand, according to Huntington native Michele Foulke.
“If you hear someone from another family passed away, you can be empathetic, but you don’t really understand how devastating the virus is unless you have experienced it in your own family,” said Foulke, whose brother died from COVID in May.
“You can’t even walk them into the hospital. They die alone. You can’t talk to them. With all the experimental drugs, the medical staff gives them the drugs that they feel are going to help them. They’re making on-the-spot decisions, and you’re fighting to advocate for the life of your family member all the time. You can’t eat or sleep because you’re so worried.”
And when her brother passed away, “we couldn’t bury him with honor,” she said. “We couldn’t dress him, we had to stand far away because he was still considered contagious after death, and the only ceremony was at the gravesite, with only 10 people.”
Scott November, 67, knows well the threat the illness poses and the need to listen to experts.
In March, the Northport Village resident suddenly became extremely weak and was unable to get out of bed, but couldn’t get tested despite a week of trying. On March 17, he started having trouble breathing and went by ambulance to Huntington Hospital. Within two days, he was on a ventilator where he remained for two weeks. “I am beyond lucky,” he said. “I’m fairly certain I was the first to come off ventilator not in a body bag.” After another week, he went to a rehab center for 10 days because he couldn’t walk, had trouble swallowing and felt foggy. He had nothing but praise for Huntington Hospital and the way staffers worked with his family.
“I came very close to dying and many will if they don’t heed the simple stuff,” November said. it’s not a magic bullet. People will be safe if they follow that guidance.” He has no patience for those who argue against the value of masks and other precautions. “Your freedom to swing your arms ends at quarter inch from my nose.”
And Dr. Nick Fitterman, executive director of Huntington Hospital, said the epidemic is far from over and people need to avoid complacency.
“This is a bad virus. This is not a bad flu,” he said. “In the best estimate, it is more than 10 times more deadly that the worst flu. We are not turning the corner yet. We are headed for a winter storm as people congregate in closed spaces and the opportunity to transmit the virus will increase. If we buy into the rhetoric that this is just a bad flu, that’s just nonsense.”
He has little patience for the argument that positive tests are increasing simply because more tests are being conducted. “We have more cases because we have more cases and the shame of it all is we can control this. If we had the right messages with one source of truth we can control this,” he said. “It’s great to have freedom of speech but bad information iss being propagated.” He said people should call their own doctors for information instead of believing whatever they’ve read on social media.
In the near future, Krief is looking ahead to Thanksgiving when many families have college students coming home, some from states with significant outbreaks. Rather than a large group with extended family members from different households, Krief said, it’s advisable to limit Thanksgiving dinner to immediate family.
“Show love for the family by keeping distance this year and looking forward to a really big party next year,” she advised.