Day 5 was the worst. The debilitating symptoms from COVID-19 came in waves as Jason Chatfield remained horizontal in an empty house in Tulsa. He didn’t want to down food. He had trouble sitting upright enough to drink water. And despite his need for sleep, the fever and shivering kept him awake for hours at a time.
“You have God-awful fever-dreams about anything from time travel to Frasier Crane,” Chatfield says of his surreal, sitcom-laced mindset, as well as “pain in your hips and back. … It’s quite the ride.”
Chatfield, 35, is a New York-based cartoonist and comedian who decided to get far from the city in early March. He and his wife Sophie, 32, took up their friends’ invitation to spend the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic on a remote farm in rural Oklahoma. The irony is, they believe they contracted COVID-19 while traveling west.
Chatfield, an artistic contributor to the New Yorker, Mad and Wired, has created an online comic about a dozen days of suffering the symptoms, titled “COVID-19 Diary.” The headings to describe his ordeal include “Denial,” “Netflix and the Chills,” “Pass Out in the Shower” and “Pan(dem)ic.”
The National Cartoonists Society president drew the comic partly as a public service, and partly as an emotional response to people who don’t seem to be treating this pandemic as a grave threat — from passersby to some politicians to friends in his native Australia sharing memes and websites claiming the virus was a hoax.
“I’ve been curtailing my exposure to social media since the beginning of the pandemic for my mental health, but when I did my daily check-in, I’d become increasingly upset at seeing people not take the virus seriously,” says Chatfield, who returned home after he and his wife fully recovered. “It made me angry — not just at people here in New York, but people in other states bleating about reopening everything, having been deceived by disinformation and conspiracy theories.”
Plus, Chatfield feels chastened himself by having been less careful at one point. He and his wife had been vigilant in New York, even bleaching banisters in their building that houses many older tenants. They also disinfected their plane seats as they flew out of LaGuardia shortly before the city was ordered to shelter in place — about two dozen passengers on a 175-seat flight.
Once they experienced symptoms while on the Oklahoma farm, though, “you run through this impossible mental Rolodex of things and people you touched over the previous 14 days,” says Chatfield, noting: “Doing the reverse math on the symptoms, the hotel in St. Louis was almost certainly the location we picked up the virus.”
“We stupidly let our guard down as we thought we’d ‘escaped’ the virus,” says Chatfield, recalling of the St. Louis airport: “There was nobody wearing masks, no gloves, nothing. People were all huddled together in bars, restaurants, in line at Starbucks. It was like they hadn’t got the news yet.”
He and his wife self-isolated at the Tulsa house after leaving the farm of their two friends, who never contracted COVID-19.
At first, Chatfield denied he had the disease — even as his temperature reached 105 degrees. “You think, ‘Other people get this. How could I possibly have this?’ ” he says of the reaction he calls early-onset exceptionalism. “I’ve since heard from other people who have had it that this is a common mental reaction: ‘Oh, it’s probably nothing. It’s probably just the flu.’ “
Chatfield was still in denial during Day 2, but his symptoms worsened. “You think your teeth are going to fall out from chattering,” he says. “You can’t get up to go to the bathroom because you’re too dizzy, and you certainly can’t shower.”
By Day 5, the cartoonist writes in the comic, he felt “punched in the face” by the virus: “You realize you lost your sense of smell three days ago. Also taste.”
His breathing became more labored, at one point sounding “like the sound Coco Pops make when you pour milk on them.”
He began to think about his own mortality. “There were a few moments there where I regretted watching ‘Outbreak’ and ‘Contagion’ while I was horizontal,” Chatfield says.
“I had to really focus on my breathing all day. It was like being in the world’s longest Lamaze class,” he continues. “I feared if I fell asleep and couldn’t focus on my breathing, my lungs wouldn’t get enough oxygen and I’d pass out in my sleep — but luckily, I had my wife looking after me.”
On Day 7, he called the local health department for a COVID-19 test. Two days later, he got the positive result. Upon reflection, he wishes he’d gotten tested sooner, but he hadn’t wanted to burden the hospital system.
He was coughing, constipated and contagious. Then on Day 12, as he was improving, Sophie showed symptoms. Given all her care for him, he “returned the favor and donned the nurse’s outfit.”
Now back in New York, he and his wife are zealous about disease safety.
“We’re still acting as if we have it — wearing gloves, masks and taking every precaution to ensure we don’t inadvertently spread the virus through some other means,” Chatfield says. “We all have a responsibility to stay home and flatten the curve, especially in New York City.”