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Tampa Chief Brian Dugan on coronavirus diagnosis: ‘It’s been a rollercoaster’

Dugan, 54, has a relatively mild case but he’s still contending with headaches, fatigue and a cough that makes him sound “like a 30-year smoker.”

TAMPA — Tampa’s police chief woke up Sunday morning with what he figured was a sinus infection.

Brian Dugan had a headache, stuffy nose and a fever of just over 100 degrees. He didn’t think it could be COVID-19. He’d been so careful, and he got the first shot of the vaccine the previous Monday. He was prone to sinus infections, and this felt like one.

Dugan followed department protocol by reporting his symptoms to an occupational health nurse with Tampa Fire Rescue, who told Dugan to go to an Advent Health clinic for a rapid COVID-19 test.

“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s necessary, and she said, ‘We gotta make sure,” Dugan, 54, recalled Wednesday in a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “I about fell out of my chair when they said, ‘You tested positive for COVID-19.’ ”

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, speaking here in November, said he's been racking his brain to figure how he contracted COVID-19. As chief, he still had to work at the station, interacting with other employees and the public.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, speaking here in November, said he's been racking his brain to figure how he contracted COVID-19. As chief, he still had to work at the station, interacting with other employees and the public. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And with that, Tampa’s top law enforcement officer joined the ranks of public officials whose job duties have been subsumed by the pandemic and then find themselves diagnosed with the virus. The department announced Dugan’s diagnosis in a news release on Monday.

“It’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster,” he said. “I feel sorry for the elderly who have to go through this. I can see how if you were elderly, this could really kick your butt.”

Experts have said the first vaccine will give recipients about 50 percent protection from COVID-19 while they’ll have about 95 percent protection after the second.

Dugan said he has a relatively mild case but it has still laid him low at times. He’ll start to feel better, then sleep for hours. He feels cold and then breaks out in a sweat.

Related: Tampa Bay’s first responders get early vaccine access. Will they take it?

On Monday, when Dugan’s home pulse oximeter showed his oxygen levels had dropped, his wife Diana drove him to Tampa General Hospital. Doctors suspected it might be the onset of pneumonia, but a chest X-ray ruled that out. He left after a couple of hours with some medication for symptoms including the cough and headaches that he called “crippling.”

As he recounted that part of the story, he broke into a raspy coughing fit. The fits come and go and make him sound like “a 30-year smoker,” he said.

Dugan is a prostate cancer survivor but said he is not considered immunocompromised because his cancer was treated with surgery, not chemotherapy or radiation. He said doctors hope the fact that he had received the first of the two required vaccine doses will help his body fight off the virus and keep it from becoming severe.

“The compassion and care I received at TGH was unbelievable,” he said. “They’re not essential workers. They’re angels.”

Dugan has sequestered himself in the bedroom of his daughter, who went back to college on New Year’s Eve. His son returned to college last week and has tested negative twice so far.

Related: Can you get the coronavirus from a vaccine? Nope.

The couple is relying on friends and food delivery service for meals. Diana leaves food at the bedroom door. Dugan’s 10-month-old German Shepherd puppy Maddie lies outside the door whining for him.

As he grapples with the illness, he has also wracked his brain trying to figure out where he might have contracted the virus.

“I have no idea,” he said. “What’s frustrating is, I have been very careful about all of this.”

As chief, though, he still has to work at the station, interacting with other employees and the public. He said the department as a whole has been careful, too, by maintaining social distance when possible and wearing masks. But as the pandemic has shown with often tragic results, even people who have been careful wind up exposed and test positive.

Dugan said his biggest concern is that he unwittingly gave the virus to someone else before he learned he was positive, which is another reason why he felt it was important to announce his diagnosis.

“I wanted everyone who’s been around me to know,” he said.

Dugan planned to work from home but said that, so far, he hasn’t felt up to doing much more than checking in with command staff a couple of times a day. He’s scheduled to return to work Jan. 25.

The department last week started giving vaccines to employees who wanted to be vaccinated A recent survey of department employees indicated a significant amount of skepticism among the employees: Of the 1,111 employees who’d responded as of Jan. 4, 424 — or 38 percent — said they were not interested in the vaccine. Another 397 were undecided.

From the time testing began in March through Monday, 134 of the department’s 1,300 employees had tested positive.

Dugan has said that people should let science and doctors’ advice on getting a vaccine, not rumors and unfounded opinions, be their guide.

“Now that I have it, I would suggest everyone get it because this is not something you want, that’s for sure.”

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