COVID-19 survivors share their stories at press conference


Last updated 10/30/2020 at 12:02pm

At a press conference Thursday held by Gov. Steve Bullock, a pair of COVID-19 survivors, a married couple from Butte, shared their story and how the virus has affected their lives and outlooks on the pandemic.

Gilbert Herrera, 51, said he‘s been against mask wearing since the start of the pandemic, at points even shaming and laughing at those who did wear them, and that his outlook towards the pandemic was one of, in hindsight, excessive skepticism.

“I was a firm believer in not wearing a mask,” Herrera said. “(I‘ve got) a normal healthy immune system and I wanted to call this thing ‘shamdemic,’ you know, ‘it‘s going to go away after the election,’ that was my firm belief. And then on Sept. 10th is when I started having symptoms.“

Herrera said he worked through the early part of his illness before getting tested and found out that he had COVID-19.

He said it was a deeply unpleasant experience throughout, resulting in significant breathing troubles, the illness making it difficult to do the basic functions of his job before getting tested.

But his symptoms only got worse until one day they became critical.

“I wasn‘t doing that great, I just kinda got up and laid down on the couch, and about an hour later I couldn’t breathe,“ he said. “My chest was constricted, my breaths were shallow and everything was starting to go black.”

Herrera said he lived close to the hospital and the staff was already waiting for him, his wife having called ahead. They got his breathing back to normal, but his vitals were low, he said.

“When my daughter came down to take me I could see the fear in her eyes,“ he said.

Herrera said that, after three days, his vitals rebounded significantly, and he was eventually sent home. But there may be a complication down the road.

“I wound up recovering pretty well,” he said. “The only problem I have now is I have fluid in my lungs and the doctors are scared that it might be blood clots. So now I‘m on blood thinners for the rest of my life.”

Herrera later clarified that his doctors said he still needs more tests to confirm the nature of the fluid, but blood clots are a serious possibility.

“This virus doesn‘t care who you are,” he said. “ ... If you can get sick it‘s going to get you. I‘m now a firm believer in wearing a mask, because I just don‘t want to see anybody else go through what we had to.”

He said he‘s already gotten into arguments with some people about the subject and, unfortunately, some still simply will not listen.

“It‘s people who don‘t care about your story, who don‘t care about what you went through, those people who are just going to not wear them,“ he said.

Herrera‘s wife, Gina Sandon, 44, said her experience with COVID-19 was different but no less harrowing.

Sandon said she had minor symptoms at first and she didn‘t feel really ill until five days in. After a few days she thought she had the flu because she, her husband, and her 22-year-old daughter, who also tested positive for COVID-19 later, had different symptoms.

She said when she went to get tested she was diagnosed with pneumonia, and during the time it took for her test to come back things only gotten worse.

“I was dizzy, delirious, I couldn’t stand without getting nauseous, “she said.

Eventually she went to the emergency room and found out she was COVID-19 positive at the exact same time as the ER staff put her on oxygen.

She said she had to wait in the emergency room for four hours, because the rooms necessary for housing COVID-19 patients were being used.

Sandon said hospital staff had to effectively convert a normal room into a COVID-19-safe room which involved modifying it so air flow didn’t spread the virus outside the room.

She said she could only talk to staff through a TV monitor most of the time, because they had to suit up to enter the room safely.

After finding she was allergic to one treatment, and enduring a medical error that put her into anaphylactic shock, she was also diagnosed with sepsis, an extremely dangerous condition with a high mortality rate related to the body’s reaction to an infection.

Sandon said the doctors are unsure if the pneumonia or sepsis are the result of COVID-19 or the other way around, calling it a chicken-and-egg situation.

In the end, she said, she was in the hospital for 10 days and in isolation for 45.

She said she is still recovering from the pneumonia and sepsis and is worried about the future, especially with the sepsis.

Sandon also said her mind is still a little foggy and it‘s taking longer for her to process information since her time with COVID-19 and she hopes this isn‘t permanent.

She said she didn’t share her husband‘s skepticism regarding the pandemic when it began and took the guidelines seriously and said that should go to show just how easy it is to get the disease.

“That‘s the thing, people ask me all the time, ‘How did you get it?’ I don’t know,” she said.

Bullock said it’s not the first time he’s heard from people who’ve had on-going problems due to the virus, or worse.

“I‘ve spoken with too many families who have lost loved ones because of this disease,” he said. “ ... This is not a shamdemic, and it‘s something that we could all take a bit more seriously.”

Bullock said hoped that people appreciate the couple‘s willingness to share their experiences and that Montanan‘s take their story to heart.

“We‘re all fatigued of the virus, but keep in mind folks like them, and people all over the state that don’t want to be spending weeks or days in the hospital, that don’t want to be worrying about whether there are going to be continuing effects and impacts, and that don’t want to have further losses of lives,” he said. “It is incumbent on each of us to do our part as individuals to better protect the community.“

Cases in the governor’s office

Bullock said the state announced Wednesday that someone in his office tested positive for COVID-19, and four staff members have since been identified as close contacts, with one testing positive themselves and leading to one more contact.

Bullock said he is not among these contacts but out of an abundance of caution he and Lieutenant-Gov. Mike Cooney will be tested daily, and the last tests results they‘ve received have been negative.

He said people who have tested positive are isolating and their contacts are in quarantine.

He said his office takes the pandemic very seriously as masks are a requirement, and temperature checks happen every morning.

Bullock said while precautions didn‘t prevent the infections they did minimize contacts and slowed the potential spread, and he thanked the staffers involved for their diligence.

“These individuals followed the guidelines, got tested quickly, began isolation ... and, thankfully, these individuals stayed home once they were experiencing symptoms, likely preventing further spread throughout the office, “he said.

He said this, however, is a reminder that the pandemic must be taken seriously.

Local COVID restrictions

Bullock said recent restrictions put in place by local governments in Montana including in Missoula and Cascade counties are evidence that local governments are doing what they feel is right for their communities.

Hill County Health Department plans to review rates of COVID confirmations at the end of the week with plans to put additional restrictions in place if the rate does not drop significantly.

Bullock said the state will continue to support local restrictions, and he hopes businesses will back them as well for the sake of public health.

“We are one big community in Montana, “he said. “ ... And the virus is spreading like we are one community, but we can also beat this virus and slow it‘s spread by working together as a community.“

Bullock said this is particularly important with a holiday weekend coming up, and he encouraged people to celebrate Halloween safely.

He said he’s aware of some local governments putting in restrictions for the weekend, and while he supports these actions, the state will not be putting in any more restrictions for the weekend.

Nursing teams brought in state to help

Bullock also provided an update on the five nursing teams the state recently secured from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will be assisting the state in patching the gaps of health care workers in rural areas of the state for the next month.

The continued spread of COVID-19 has increased the risk of health care workers being quarantined, he said, hurting rural hospitals that are vital to many communities.

He said three of the five teams will arrive next week and will be stationed around the Hi-Line and eastern Montana, with the Emergency Coordination Center leading operations.

The last two teams, he said, are still responding to Hurricane Zeta.

Fixing conflicting data

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Communicable Disease Bureau Chief Jim Murphy, also spoke about a new database the state health department is working on with local health departments to improve the constancy of number reporting between the state and local levels.

Murphy said reporting these numbers can be a serious ordeal on the local level especially with the surge on-going, because local health departments need to prioritize contact tracing and disease investigations first and foremost.

Cyber attacks on health care

Bullock said his office is dealing with potential threats that militia groups have been targeting the health care system with cyber attacks, detailed in FBI reports.

He said his office has been working with the National Guard and other agencies to make sure they have a cyber-team ready and preparations are being made for that eventuality.


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