BIRD ISLAND, Minn. — Three days after returning to his home in Bird Island from a trip to California, John O’Neill started to experience body aches and a low-grade fever.
The 68-year-old man’s response to what seemed like a minor bout of influenza can be credited with stopping the COVID-19 virus in its tracks. He self-isolated himself in a room at his home in Bird Island, a small town of about 1,000 in west-central Minnesota. His spouse, Pat, quarantined herself in their home as well.
“John and his family did exactly what our protocol says,” said Jill Bruns, public health director in Renville County. She credits Renville County’s first coronavirus patient with preventing the community spread of the novel virus.
O’Neill was tested at Carris Health - Rice Memorial Hospital on Tuesday, March 10, and about 72 hours later, on Friday the 13th, he received the call. He had tested positive for the virus.
He ventured outside on Wednesday for the first time since his self-isolation began on March 7 to speak to local reporters about his experience and recovery. He is symptom-free and feeling well in all respects. He said the Minnesota Department of Health told him he cannot transmit the virus at this point.
Pat O’Neill has shown no signs of infection and is believed virus-free as well, he said.
O’Neill said he really didn’t believe that he might be infected by the coronavirus when those first, mild symptoms developed. He had mild symptoms on two days, March 7 and 8. By March 9 he was feeling fine.
O’Neill is a cancer survivor and has had major heart surgery in the past, so is very mindful of health matters. He said two things motivated him to pursue testing for the virus after his symptoms appeared.
He wanted to be able to accompany his sister on a medical trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, but only if he did not pose a risk to anyone.
And on March 10 —when his symptoms had abated — he read that Rancho Mirage, Calif., reported its first two cases of coronavirus.
He and his wife had been in Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage from their arrival in California on Feb. 19 and until their return by plane to Minneapolis on March 4.
He called his doctor and explained the symptoms he’d experienced and told him about his travels. He also called Bruns at the public health office in Olivia.
He said it took some persistence, but on March 10 he hopped in his pickup truck and drove to Willmar for the test. He donned a face mask to walk from his pickup truck to the Rice Hospital Emergency Room for the test.
Getting the positive test result almost 72 hours later came as a shock, he said.
He said he can’t say enough about the guidance and help he received from all of the area health care providers and the Minnesota Department of Health. Within minutes of the positive test result, he was being queried by the department on his travels and any people he had contacted after his return home. In the first two days after he returned home, and before he self-isolated, O’Neill said he did some banking, swam laps at the Olivia pool, and visited with friends.
O’Neill can only speculate whether he contracted the virus while in California or on the plane ride home. The Palm Springs Airport was very crowded as people were avoiding the Los Angeles International Airport, he said.
What’s surprising, he said, is that his wife, Pat, was meticulous about taking precautions while they were in California. He called her the biggest “germaphobe you ever met.” Pat used disinfectant wipes to clean everything in their hotel rooms, and even the dinner tables, chairs and armrests at the restaurants they visited. “That’s why I was really shocked. I was doused with chlorine the whole time we were gone,” he said, laughing.
The self-imposed exile at home in Bird Island was made possible by the help of many friends. “If we need anything, all we have to do is make the call and it shows up sitting on our front step,” said O’Neill. Sometimes he’d look out to see surprise treats waiting on the steps.
As a cancer survivor, O’Neill considers his immune system to be compromised. However, he takes care of himself. While on the trip and for those first two days after returning home, he continued his practice of working out by swimming laps and jogging.
Bruns said he is clearly fortunate to have dealt with only a relatively minor case of the virus. O’Neill said his fever reached only 100.8, and his body aches were not terrible. He said he had very little in the way of a cough and no shortness of breath. He rested in his room and did a lot of reading, he said.
People have been wary of the family after word spread of the illness. Kelly O’Neill, his daughter-in-law, said the family has had some people express concerns and avoid them. Bruns said it is important that we all take precautions to avoid spreading the disease, but we should also know that O’Neill cannot spread the disease.
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