In February, I went to a horse camp for children with autism and to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, taking pictures of Nick the dolphin as he picked LSU to defeat Clemson in the college national championship game.
I made images of Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, attended various City Council meetings and a boys soccer match and previewed the Valspar Championship. I covered an Ash Wednesday service and got to Indian Shores to see the sand fluffer machine make the beach pretty.
In March, though, my assignments for the Tampa Bay Times changed.
I was sent to Sam’s Club and Costco, where people had cleared the shelves of hand sanitizer and toilet paper. I went to Tampa International Airport to document passengers as officials discussed how to retrace an infected woman’s steps. I took pictures for a food review of Water Oak Grill in Safety Harbor, but the effort seemed pointless. The city felt deserted.
I drove to Clearwater Beach. It was packed with spring breakers. When I came home, I told my family that it had been “icky,” that people were too close.
After Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order about New York travelers, I headed back to the airport, keeping my distance, but still, all of it felt too close.
On March 30, I left at daybreak to document U.S. 19, which was glutted with traffic. While standing in the median, my knees grew wobbly. I remember thinking my head was too hot. I felt nauseous and chilled.
That’s when I knew.
The first time the coronavirus crossed my mind was in late January while emailing a friend who was traveling in China. I joked that he should "run for the hills before he gets the 'Wuhan flu.' "
My friend, in fact, cut his trip short, taking connecting flights home through Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan.
But like most Americans, I wasn’t prepared for the pandemic, and not overly worried about it, either.
I always get a flu shot, but I’m not a germophobe. I do not carry hand sanitizer, I use public restrooms, I shake hands. Often.
My last assignment before I became sick was to look around Pinellas County and capture “the emptiness and quietness of the streets.”
But the Palm Harbor Walmart parking lot was full, and strangers lined up for ice cream cones at Strachan’s in downtown Dunedin. Lowe's in Countryside was so packed I left before going in.
By the end of March, I had developed a strange symptom. The bottoms of my feet felt like someone had beaten them with a 2x4. It was uncomfortable to walk. I hadn't fallen or kicked something or run a marathon.
After confirming my fever at home, I contacted my doctor, who ordered a test.
It came back positive for COVID-19.
Sharing the news with my family was easy. They had expected it.
My three children were remarkably unimpressed. Stella, my 8-year-old, immediately started calling me “Coronaboy.”
I had contacted my boss at the Times when I first felt ill, and he put me on leave. We did amateur contact tracing. Where had I gone in the last 72 hours? The last week?
We shared suspicions over my time with spring breakers and New Yorkers.
One of my colleagues, a reporter, was quarantined for having worked with me recently.
Then I went to bed.
I shut the door and stayed in a bedroom alone, too tired to do much of anything.
For 10 days, it was like a relentless flu.
In the morning, I’d be lethargic and have headaches. By the afternoon, I’d be coughing a little. At night came the fever and body aches.
I took Tylenol, drank Gatorade, ate what I could.
I lost my sense of taste and smell.
I had insomnia and racing thoughts, mostly centered around my children.
We live in the same house, share the same air. Were they being exposed? Were they going to get it, too?
Every day, I listened to federal officials talking about the need for hospital beds. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I was haunted by the voices on TV discussing ventilators.
But I thought: I’m 49, and I don’t have heart or lung disease or diabetes, which puts people at higher risk. I thought, I’m going to be okay.
Still, I wondered. Is my cough too chronic?
What do they really know about this disease? What do they not know?
As the days went on, I was closely monitored by my physician.
We used a BayCare app for an online checkup. She had me shine my cellphone flashlight into my throat, so she could check for infection.
We communicated daily. She was always available, especially as I grew anxious and apprehensive.
At one point, I begged her to write me a prescription for hydroxychloroquine, the medication the president had touted. It’s used to prevent or treat malaria.
She sent the prescription to Publix and a stiff warning to me:
“You are taking this medication off label, meaning that you are taking it for use that is not intended,” she told me.
She warned me of the adverse side effects, the potential for low white cell and platelet counts, severe skin reaction and liver failure, as well as dizziness, headache and abdominal pain.
I decided not to take it.
The cough began to fade, and on April 10, the fever broke.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines recovery as “the resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath).”
I could return to work three days — or 72 hours — after that.
But I insisted on taking a followup COVID-19 test, which confirmed I was negative.
I went back to making pictures for the Times.
I really didn’t hesitate. This is, after all, what I do, what I love. And right now, we’re covering the biggest story of our lives.
Thankfully, no one in my family became ill, and my colleague is fine.
And there was a silver lining to all of this.
It played out on my birthday, April 28.
That’s when I donated convalescent plasma — the part of blood that contains protein antibodies. It can be injected into critically ill patients whose blood type matches mine. It may help them recover from COVID-19.
My doctor is a believer.
I’m happy something good might come out of this.