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In 10 days, this teacher went from a mild fever to a medically induced coma

Jason and Leslie Flanagan in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (Family photo)
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Within 10 days, an otherwise healthy 39-year-old high school English teacher went from having a mild fever to being placed into a medically induced coma because he was struggling so much to breathe.

Leslie Flanagan said her husband’s rapid deterioration made real the once-distant threat posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, which over the past two weeks has increasingly shut down life in the Washington region.

His illness also illustrated the challenges — emotional, bureaucratic and faced by a growing number of Americans — of disclosing a suspected covid-19 case.

Like many dealing with the national testing backlog, Leslie Flanagan had to wait over a week before being told Friday morning that her husband, Jason, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

His colleagues and students at High Point High School in Beltsville, Md., were not notified while the results were pending that Jason was suspected of having the virus. The Prince George’s County public school system announced the case Friday afternoon, after officials received confirmation from the county health department.

Jason, who teaches Advanced Placement English, started feeling sick with a mild fever and cough on March 16, the same Monday that Maryland ordered the closure of public schools across the state. Jason made an appointment with his primary care doctor, who told him to take ibuprofen and use cold cloths to soothe his fever.

He and his wife were not worried then because he was young and healthy, Leslie said. Neither considered telling the school that Jason was sick, because he had not taken any recent trips and could not fathom that he had the virus. There were then 41 reported positive cases in Maryland.

After days of temperature fluctuations — and one morning of waking up with no fever at all — Jason’s fever was about 102 a week ago Friday, Leslie said. On that day, Hogan announced the second death in the state attributed to the virus, and the number of reported cases in Maryland ticked up to 150.

Jason’s primary doctor gave him a prescription for a covid-19 test, and he was tested a week ago Friday, Leslie said.

Inside their one-bedroom apartment in Frederick, Md., the young couple were starting to get worried but still teasing each other and trying to remain optimistic. Practicing social distancing was practically impossible in such a small space, said Leslie, 35. But they tried not to touch, washed their hands frequently and wiped down the counters.

On Tuesday, Jason’s breathing grew labored. It sounded, Leslie said, like he was dying.

Known coronavirus cases in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

By this day, there were four deaths and 350 positive cases in the state, and Hogan was touring the Baltimore Convention Center, which is being turned into a field hospital to accommodate an expected surge of patients.

Leslie was tearful. Jason, the more pragmatic of the two, was upset she was being so dramatic. But he agreed to call the doctor, who sent him to get a chest X-ray. Staff at Frederick Memorial Hospital said his oxygen was so low he needed a ventilator. Leslie last spoke to Jason by phone that night. She now says she wishes she had closed with a joke, or anything to make him feel better.

“I wish I had said just one more thing.”

She posted the next day on Facebook, explaining her husband’s condition and begging her friends to understand the importance of heeding the government’s orders: “What I want to emphasize is how much we need to take the precautions for the prevention of this disease seriously.”

That was when she started to get messages from Jason’s fellow teachers and the principal at High Point, who said they were thinking about him and praying for him.

When the Baltimore Post-Examiner, where Jason used to work, reached out to talk to her, she considering declining, to protect his privacy. But in the end, she decided to share their story, believing Jason would want the whole truth out there in the hopes that it could prevent others from getting sick.

“I don’t want people to have this false sense of security,” Leslie said Friday, after getting his test results back.

Coronavirus in the DMV: What you need to know

David Murray, a member of the Prince George’s County Board of Education whose district includes High Point, said he wishes school officials had notified the community of Jason’s potential infection after he was first tested.

Murray works at Rocketship Rise Academy Public Charter School in Southeast Washington, where officials informed families earlier this month that one of their students was suspected of having covid-19. But officials later said the child tested negative.

“It’s not a bad thing to share information in terms of precautions,” Murray said. “When you work in a school building, you have potentially a bigger reach than others.”

By Friday, Maryland reported its biggest single-day jump in cases — 194 new ones — bringing the state’s total to 775, and Hogan warned the worst is yet to come. It had been three days since Leslie had talked to her husband, the longest they had gone since they met on in 2013. The hospital told her he is a bit more stable, with his oxygen levels improved.

Leslie said she has been leaving her husband voice mails and sending texts she knows he cannot open, hoping they will make him laugh when he wakes up.

A picture of their cat being naughty and jumping on the table; a picture of the Hamburger Helper meal she never got quite right; a joke about the restaurant they waited years to try then ended up hating. She hates not being able to hold his hand and worries that even though he is not awake, he might be able to sense that he is alone.

She still sees Facebook posts from friends who seem not to be taking officials’ warning to stay at home seriously, including some that complain about social distancing. They make her angry, and remind her about how she and Jason used to think about the virus. “How are you staying busy?” one asked Thursday.

“My husband is in the ICU,” she retorted. “I just want to scream.”

On Friday afternoon, she went to take a test to see if she, too, has the virus.

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