Editor’s note: Dr. Gabrielle Baldwin, owner and principal physician at Covington Pediatrics, became Covington County’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 27. She wrote this to calm fears in the southern Alabama county as rumors of her diagnosis spread.
Dear residents of Covington County,
As you all know, Covington County has recently joined the majority of counties in our state in having confirmed cases of COVID-19 by positive test results. Of the two positive cases in Covington County residents reported on Friday, March 27, I am one of those. Our community appears to be struggling in a state of fear and panic since the news of local positive tests hit the media, and I would like to share my story in an attempt to help everyone calm down, receive accurate information and best protect ourselves as a community.
At 1:30 a.m. on Monday, March 23, I woke with fever and chills. I had felt totally fine when I went to bed the evening before. In fact, I had been taking advantage of social distancing and spring cleaning like many people, steam-cleaning my carpet on Sunday.
I immediately self-isolated when these symptoms started. When morning came, I progressed down the recommended assessment pathway. I drove myself alone to my office and only after donning a mask and gloves so as not to expose anyone there, I entered and performed a strep and flu test that were negative, as well as blood work. As these rapid tests were negative, I did proceed with coronavirus testing for more than one reason, which will be explained shortly.
After the coronavirus swab was obtained locally, I immediately returned to my home and have been there since self-quarantining. I sanitized all common areas of my home, wearing a mask and gloves, before my children were allowed to come out of their rooms. They immediately packed and left to stay with family, keeping a greater-than-6-foot distance from me while doing so.
As my illness progressed that day, I developed body aches and a significant headache. On day No. 3 of symptoms, I developed a mild cough and chest discomfort, starting approximately 12 hours after my last episode of fever. On day No. 5 (Friday, March 27) I awoke feeling significantly better. I had minimal headache and backache, minimal cough and chest discomfort — mostly just a stuffy nose. It was later that morning I was notified that my test had come back positive. And then community panic ensued.
I am not a very public person, as people can tell from my lack of social media. It is not very well known, but I am immunocompromised. I have rheumatoid arthritis and require weekly injections of an immunosuppressant medication to keep my symptoms under control and keep myself functional. As such, I am at high risk to contract ANY infectious disease. And I, as a physician, am exposed to infectious diseases all day every day. But I take handwashing very seriously, washing before and after every patient, and have done so long before this novel coronavirus appeared.
I do not let my diagnosis or my medication keep me from providing much-needed care to my patients out of fear for myself. My underlying immune status is one reason I sought testing. The other reason is my patients and their families. Their health and safety are my number one priority. I would never knowingly place them, or my employees, at risk for anything, including contracting coronavirus. In fact, two weeks ago we altered our scheduling methods to protect well patients while still allowing them to receive preventive care, including much-needed vaccines. The last thing we as a country need is an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable illness in the midst of this pandemic.
Friday afternoon, I spent almost two hours on the phone with a representative of the Alabama Department of Public Health. They requested the information of my close contacts (meaning household members and anyone who was within 6 feet of me for more than 15 minutes) from two days prior to onset of symptoms (meaning Saturday, March 21) through the day my test results came back. That number of people was very low. I had already contacted them all on Monday after I was tested, and they were socially distancing and monitoring for symptoms. I am happy to say none of them has become symptomatic to date.
In regard to my employees and patients, the ADPH does not consider them to be in the window of risk from exposure to me. My last patient contact was approximately 62 hours prior to the onset of my symptoms. And my last employee contact without protective equipment was the same time frame. I have been given a timeline for self-quarantine and have been informed of timing for discontinuation and return to patient care.
If you are taking the time to read this, please pay close attention to what I am about to say. Remain calm. There is no need for panic. This illness is no one’s fault. Every community in the world will eventually have cases of COVID-19. In fact, every community in the United States very likely already has cases of COVID-19. And I doubt my case was the first in Covington County. It was simply the first positive test.
Social-distancing is not an attempt to eliminate the virus (which is impossible); it is an attempt to slow the spread of the virus so the healthcare system does not become overloaded and collapse. Let’s look at the numbers from an encouraging standpoint for a change. There are 116,488 documented cases in the United States, and there have only been 1,943 documented deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. at the time of this writing. That is a death rate of 1.6%. In reality, that percentage is much lower, because in rural areas such as ours, testing is very limited and only symptomatic, high-risk individuals and critically ill people are meeting criteria for testing. So our actual total number of cases in the U.S. is much higher than the documented number of positive tests. Most people with the illness have mild symptoms, like I did. And they recover fully with no complication, as I have.
Do not approach this viral pandemic with fear. Approach it with accurate, factual information. Follow public health recommendations for social distancing. Use basic universal precautions, most importantly handwashing and covering your cough, things you should do every day anyway.
Update: Dr. Baldwin told Alabama NewsCenter that since her story went public, she has been asked a couple of things repeatedly. First: Did she take any medications? Her response: “Nothing prescription. I only took Tylenol as needed. I really pushed fluids and got plenty of rest, which is actually easy to do when you are in isolation. There are reports that the drug chloroquine is helpful in treating the illness, but I am allergic to that medication so it was not an option for me.” Second: How does she think she contracted the coronavirus? “Well, I do take care of sick patients every day. I honestly do not know the identity of the person I contracted the illness from.”
Dr. Baldwin also added, “Please do not take this as an attempt to downplay the seriousness of this illness, especially in high-risk populations. I am in no way trying to act in the role of an expert in the disease. One life lost is too many, and I have great sorrow for those families who have lost loved ones from this illness, but I do not want people to think having the illness is a death sentence. You can respect the illness and follow public health recommendations without having to experience fear and panic.”
As of 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 29, the Alabama Department of Public Health was reporting 783 confirmed cases in Alabama with two in Covington County. The ADPH has confirmed four COVID-19 deaths in the state. Nationally, there have been 123,000 confirmed cases with more than 2,000 deaths as of Sunday morning.