Looking back, after the region hit more than 1 million cases, Lippe, 56, marvels at the raw intensity of those early days — the fear of leaving her Maryland home, the scorn that greeted her and the nagging feeling that life would never again be the same.
“No. I can’t believe it’s been a year,” said Lippe, who now lives in a suburb of Las Vegas with her husband, Michael. “It’s unbelievable that we’re still in this situation.”
Lippe’s diagnosis on March 5, 2020 — followed shortly by confirmation that a Bethesda couple she’d never met had also tested positive — was a watershed moment, the beginning of the pandemic’s arc through the state.
Before Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced that the virus had made it into Montgomery County, the outbreak that was largely confined to China was still a remote threat to the region. Soon after came the mask mandates, the shutdown restrictions in Maryland, Virginia and the District that shuttered businesses and schools and upended normal life, the dissolved jobs and the searing pain of lost lives.
For Lippe, it was the start of a maddening new reality that unfolded when she returned home from a two-week Nile River cruise in Egypt.
By then, the stomachache and low-grade fever she had experienced during the trip had subsided; she and her fellow travelers who also became ill attributed their discomfort to something they ate or drank.
But one symptom stood out as particularly odd: Lippe couldn’t understand why she had lost her sense of taste and smell. Still, she went about her life, visiting her elderly parents and some friends, and attending a crowded Jewish shiva gathering at the retirement community in Rockville where a recently deceased friend lived.
Then, on March 3, she got a call from a man who said he was with the Maryland Department of Health. He told Lippe that she had probably been exposed to the coronavirus.
“I thought it was a scam,” said Lippe, who back then knew only vaguely about the virus. “But I couldn’t figure out how they were trying to monetize it. I kept waiting for the guy to say, ‘And if you send us this amount of money or give us your credit card . . . ’ ”
The health department worker told Lippe she could get tested for the virus at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. When she arrived, the nurse administering the test apologized for wearing gloves and a mask.
Two days later, two state health department supervisors called Lippe with the result. Positive.
“Well, what do we do now?” she recalled asking. “And they said: ‘We don’t really know. You’re the first one.’ ”
The following days were a blur.
Horrified by the thought that she might have unknowingly infected her family and friends, Lippe said she took it upon herself to inform them, even though health officials said they would do that. The hardest call was to the family of the Rockville retirement community resident who died.
The still-grieving family was understanding. But Lippe stumbled over her words, stopping and starting again between tears while she suggested that they watch out for symptoms that could kill them.
“That whole conversation, I don’t even remember all of it,” Lippe said. “I know I had my husband on the other line, and at some point in the conversation, I would just hang up the phone and my husband would say, ‘Just wait. Let me go get her,’ and talk me back off the ledge.”
She didn’t infect anybody that she knows of, including her husband, who didn’t go with her to Egypt.
After her diagnosis, Lippe no longer left her home, especially during the day. Walking the family dog meant a trip around her property, at night and with a mask on.
Strangers on social media were nonetheless vicious, blaming Lippe and others who had brought home infections from trips for ushering death and disease into the region.
Against her better judgment, she became obsessed with what people said about her online, checking every hour she was awake.
“The cockroaches have come out,” one post said. “They don’t care about anyone else.”
Her anxiety got so bad that when a friend called to check in, Lippe verbally attacked her, remembering that the friend’s husband was a TV news broadcaster.
“You just want the story for your husband!” Lippe said to her friend, who continued to call and ask about her well-being in genuine concern.
“She was such a dear friend and I was so awful,” Lippe said. “It probably took me a month until I apologized to her. Until I was back to being myself.”
She began helping other people who had the virus, volunteering in late April to be a peer counselor as part of a pilot program created by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Maryland and the state health department to help recently recovered covid-19 patients navigate their lingering trauma.
In August, Lippe and her husband moved to Las Vegas, where nobody knew about her diagnosis. It felt like a liberation. But she continued the virtual counseling sessions through what is now known as CovidConnect.
From that vantage point, she saw how the knots of anxiety over a coronavirus diagnosis loosened over time, even as the region’s numbers of new infections skyrocketed during the winter holidays.
In the beginning, the former patients who participated in the NAMI sessions shared tearful stories about how frightened they were and how death had seemed so certain.
“The experiences that these people went through,” Lippe said. “The aloneness. Coming in to the hospital through the basement and everybody moving out of your way.”
Today, she said, the stories are more about the stigmatization that comes with telling people they’ve been infected — where the typical response is “How’d you get it?” as if they did something wrong.
On Friday, Hogan commemorated Maryland’s first case by declaring a day of remembrance for the more than 7,700 Maryland residents who have died of covid-19 so far. A twilight ceremony was held at the State House in Annapolis and, as the sun set, government buildings across the state lit up in amber.
Lippe is unsure how she feels about such grand gestures.
With vaccinations picking up pace, she is eager to move back into normalcy. But, she said, “I don’t know if I’m going to be comfortable going to a grocery store without a mask on, ever, or in the near future.”
She and her husband are not yet eligible to receive a vaccination. So, she continues to wear her mask, quietly taking note of those who don’t. She’s less anxious about the virus, but worried that others will forget that it can still burn through their lives.
“Numbers are going up again,” she said about a recent surge of infections in Nevada. “That’s what scares me. The vaccine is coming, but it’s not here for everybody yet. Don’t relax.”
As for her, she said: “I’m just patiently sitting in my house, with my mask on, waiting until I qualify.”