‘Young people are not immune.’ UK senior details life with COVID-19

Kaitlyn White

Natalie Parks

Just before UK’s mid-March spring break, senior Kaitlyn White noticed she had a cough.

But since she has asthma she didn’t think much of it. She didn’t develop a fever until a week later.

“And that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, this is more than just asthma. I should not have a fever. I should not have body aches. I should not have a cough this bad,’” White told the Kernel in a phone interview.

Just a month from finishing college, 22-year-old White is one of only three UK students publicly announced to have contracted COVID-19.

White thinks she was exposed to the disease the week before UK’s spring break, when she went to Louisville for a high school speech and debate tournament.

A secondary English education major, White has coached Henry Clay High School’s debate team for the last four years.

“I’m pretty sure I caught it there because as soon as I got back from that tournament, I began my self-isolation,” White said.

“That being said, based on when I started having symptoms, there is a two-week window where I could have caught it before I actually started showing symptoms. It’s equally likely, honestly, that I caught it from someone else in my day-to-day life who was carrying it, but asymptomatic.”

Before her eventual diagnosis, White was careful to stay inside her Lexington apartment, except for a few short trips to get groceries, where she was careful to use hand sanitizer, wipe down carts and limit physical contact.

“Based on when I started showing symptoms, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to have caught it on one of those grocery trips, based on the incubation window,” White said.

White wasn’t even absolutely sure she had COVID-19 until March 30, when her test results came back positive.

Her primary care doctor had encouraged her to get tested, so White called the Fayette County Health Department, and answered questions about her symptoms and travel history. They said her likelihood of contracting the virus was “slim.”

“Because I have not traveled to New York, California, China or Italy in the past couple of weeks, they said that they would not test me because the likelihood of me having it was pretty slim,” White said.

After heeding advice from a professor, White visited Bluegrass Extended Care, a drive-through testing location where she was able to be tested a day later on March 25.

A friend drove her to the testing site, with a mask on and all the windows rolled down – necessary precautions, even though neither believed White truly had the virus. But she wanted to get tested for the sake of the others at the debate tournament.

“If there was even a small chance that I had it at the tournament and exposed anyone, I felt like it was my obligation to make sure that people knew,” White said.

The pair waited three hours for her to be tested, stuck in a line of cars that “wrapped completely around that building and the building right next to it,” according to White.

The test itself took less than five minutes.

“There’s this video on Facebook, of apparently a COVID-19 test, of this swab that goes really far up and the doctor sits there for like 30 seconds,” said White. “That was not my experience. First he swabbed the back of my throat and then he stuck it up each of my nostrils and turned. And it did go up pretty far, but it did not go that far.”

Five days later, and two weeks after her initial symptoms, White tested positive.

“My mom said, holy shit. My best friend said, oh, damn,” said White. “It’s been some variation of just like disbelief and like, I can’t really blame them. When my results came back positive, I kind of had the same reaction.”

After getting the news, she first called the friend who had driven her to get tested.

“He has been self-isolating as well,” White said. “But it doesn’t look like he’s going to catch it.”

White also promptly contacted staff at the debate tournament she attended, and three weeks later, she says she isn’t aware of any other cases associated with the tournament.

Since her COVID-19 diagnosis, White says she’s been very open about her positive test, sharing her experience on social media and telling classmates and professors.

“I don’t necessarily see the point in hiding it, especially because I’ve seen a lot of people make jokes about it,” said White. “I think seeing that someone they know actually has this virus and is actually being affected by it puts it into perspective a little bit more.”

White said several people have reached out to her on social media saying that she is the only person they know who actually has COVID-19, and that many people were surprised a 22-year-old like her got it.

‘Misery loves company’

A campus-wide email from UK Police on March 27 stated that two UK students had tested positive, along with six healthcare workers and one campus employee. White doesn’t know who the other students are, but said she thinks it would be nice to know someone else who has it.

“Even just someone to vent to about symptoms or about this whole process, because you know, misery loves company,” said White, joking that they could start a support group.

For White, who has spent a month inside her apartment with her terrier mix, Eli, and a less-than affectionate cat as her only companions, the isolation is the most difficult thing to cope with.

“I would say the loneliness is worse than the coronavirus,” said White.

Her roommate left for her home in northern Kentucky while White was in Louisville and hasn’t returned since UK moved classes online. White’s sister lives in Lexington, but for obvious reasons, White can’t see her or her friends. She regularly FaceTimes with a friend in D.C., also stuck in quarantine, for six or eight hours a day.

“Sometimes we’ll go almost a whole hour without actually talking, just knowing that the other person is there on the other end, and then we can hear the other person doing whatever they’re doing, so we know that they’re OK,” White said.

In addition to her well-wishers, White receives a daily phone call from the health department as part of a contract she signed upon her positive test result.

“It said that if I fail to meet my daily check-in, then they’re allowed to send E.M.S. or health department officials to my apartment to check on me,” White said.

Last Wednesday, it was also health department officials who told White she should go to the hospital in the midst of experiencing some difficult symptoms.

“My breathing is what got really bad,” White said. “My cough was a lot worse. I was having really bad coughing fits that would leave my head kind of splitting because I wasn’t getting oxygen.”

So, she took the health department’s advice and went to the ER.

“Almost immediately I was told that my symptoms weren’t bad enough to need to go to the hospital. The first nurse that looked at me was kind of like, ‘oh, well, I don’t know why the health department told you to come, we can’t really do anything for you here,’” White said. “And then that sentiment was mirrored by the head doctor who came in and looked at me.”

The doctor told White that she should only come to the hospital if her symptoms get so bad that she can’t walk from her bed to the bathroom without needing a break.

“To me, that really seems like much too late. Like if you can’t walk from the bed to the bathroom without stopping for air, I feel like there’s not much hope for recovery. How bad of a condition do your lungs have to be in for your breathing to be that bad,” White said.

White said she has nothing but respect and sympathy for all healthcare workers and that she’s grateful to them.

“I think they are so noble doing what they’re doing, especially right now,” White said. The virus is hard to predict, she said, and she completely understands why they made the call to send her home.

White said COVID-19 feels like a cross between the flu and an upper respiratory infection.

“That’s the best way I can describe it, is I have the chills and the body aches. I also have a cough and that’s not something I normally experience when I have the flu,” White said.

But for White, even a complete end to her symptoms does not guarantee the end to her ordeal. She said she doesn’t have an end date yet, but that it may be 14 days after she stops showing symptoms.

Life in quarantine

In the meantime, White’s pandemic experience is like that of millions of other Americans – she’s finding ways to occupy her time while stuck at home, including rediscovering a passion for cooking that sent her to culinary school, but lapsed during busy semesters at UK.

“I’ve done a couple of jigsaw puzzles. I’ve re-read the entire Harry Potter book series, re-watched the whole movie series as well. I’ve played a lot of games online. I started a writing journal. I spent about 10 hours writing 365 writing prompts on little slips of paper and putting them in a jar, so every day I can throw one out and write,” White said.

And she’s playing with her dog, her only companion. She’s spent one night without him – when she went to the hospital, she called the humane society to pick him up and board him in anticipation of a stay at the hospital.

White feels lucky that she does have a network of support, like her roommate’s family, who drove down and dropped off supplies at the door.

“It just sucks because there’s part of you that feels guilty,” White said. “I know there are other college students who aren’t as fortunate. They haven’t had the food or resources they need readily available and that’s just really unfortunate to me. I think the university could have done more to support basic needs during this closure.”

But White said she was very happy with UK’s decision to move courses online.

“If we were still having in-person classes, I would be absent for a month, maybe even longer because I still don’t know when this is going to be done,” she said.

Having Zoom class at regular times has been helpful, she said, and has given her something to rely on.

 “Just to have something to do, to have some kind of normalcy to hold on to, it’s been really important,” said White. “In my life, I’ve struggled a little bit with mental health, particularly anxiety and some depression. And not having any of my routines has been really hard on me.”

‘Young people are not immune’

White has been vocal about her experience with COVID-19, in part because she knows many people think young people will not be affected by the disease.

“Young people are not immune to the coronavirus. And even if only we were in some capacity, I think saying, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter because only immunocompromised people get it.’ I think that’s a really backhanded thing to say because when you say that, you’re saying that those people don’t matter. That’s not true,” White said.

White said it has been frustrating to see people posting on social media making fun of the pandemic. Memes and casual jokes don’t bother her, but when people say coronavirus isn’t a big deal, she feels like it’s degrading to people actually affected by the pandemic.

“And then the people who are disobeying social distancing – I don’t think it’s cool,” White said. “I don’t think it’s cute. That’s honestly kind of a slap in the face to people like me.”

White says one bright spot in the midst of her sickness and the nationwide crisis has been the “absolutely phenomenal” support she’s received from UK staff and faculty.

She said her professors check in with her daily, an interaction she welcomes, and that someone from the Dean of Students office has contacted her several times to see how she is doing.

These heart-warming gestures are extra bittersweet because this is White’s last semester at UK.

“I’m forging these great relationships with my professors and I’m never going to have class with them in-person again,” said White.

As for what’s to come post-pandemic, White says she’s making a list of things she wants to do when the world returns to normal.

“I think first I’m going to take my dog to the dog park. I think he deserves a trip to the dog park after putting up with me for this long. And he, I think, is a little stir-crazy too,” White said.

She’s missing the normal things the most, even Thirsty Thursday at Two Keys, which is definitely not social distancing-friendly, White said.

She also plans to buy a bottle of champagne and sit with her friends on the back patio at McCarthy’s, their regular hang-out spot.

“I just want to resume life as normal, as normal as much as possible,” White said.