Second-year Duke law student Zack Kaplan spent his 27th birthday a bit differently from how he might have envisioned it a few weeks prior: eating a chocolate cupcake in self-isolation.
After a school trip to Alaska, Kaplan got a low fever, so he got tested for COVID-19 on his birthday, March 17, at a Duke Health pop-up drive through testing center. He spent the rest of his birthday and the next six days waiting for his results, which came back positive.
He underwent a two-week self-isolation, which ended Tuesday, and is now recovered. Over the two weeks, he suffered at various times mild chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and headaches, in addition to the fever.
Kaplan is like many other young coronavirus patients in that he only had mild symptoms. He also comes from the largest age demographic of COVID-19 patients in North Carolina, as nearly half of coronavirus patients in the state are between the ages of 25 and 49, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
After practicing precautions like social distancing and frequent hand washing and still getting the disease, he has a message for Duke students: you should take this pandemic seriously.
“This virus is extremely easy to pick up (and therefore to spread) even while being careful, so we all have a role to play in staying diligent and cautious during these coming weeks,” Kaplan said. “However, we shouldn’t let our physical separateness get in the way of reaching out to our friends and family and supporting the folks who really deserve our support during this challenging time.”
How Kaplan thinks he got coronavirus
Kaplan, who hopes to work in education law and policy after graduation, traveled to Juneau, Alaska for a law school trip over Duke's spring break in early March. On the way there and back, he had layovers in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, near the country’s first coronavirus hotspot.
While Kaplan was in Alaska, Duke moved to cancel its in-person undergraduate and School of Law classes for the remainder of the semester, moving classes online.
“Once that started happening, I knew that there was a real chance of getting the virus anywhere, and particularly while traveling,” Kaplan said. “I was very cautious while traveling and while in Alaska, which goes to show how easy it is to contract or spread this virus.”
He returned from his trip March 15. The next day, he noticed a fever between 99.5 and 100.5 degrees, a low-grade fever that is a common symptom of COVID-19.
Unlike many people at the time, he was able to quickly get tested. On March 17, he called the Student Wellness Center at 9:30 a.m. and was able to get tested just over two hours later at the Duke Family Medical Center.
One key reason for the speed: his wife is a nurse at UNC Hospital and couldn’t run the risk of passing coronavirus to her patients.
“Had that not been the case, I would not have gotten tested,” Kaplan said. “I would have simply presumed I was positive and self-isolated for two weeks.”
His wife stopped working once he got tested, even though the positive test didn’t come back for nearly a week.
As for the testing process, which involves a swab being inserted deep into the nose, a process some have described as feeling like “being stabbed in the brain,” Kaplan said it was slightly uncomfortable but painless.
A dozen medical personnel were waiting for him in a tent when he pulled up. Nurses garbed head to toe in personal protective equipment took his vitals and did a throat swab and two nose swabs.
“The first nose swap was the uncomfortable part—it was a thin, bendy stick that they put far enough up my nose to basically hit the back of my throat,” Kaplan said. “It was definitely uncomfortable, but quick and painless and certainly a small price to pay for the benefit of getting tested.”
Once he got home, Kaplan wasn’t able to have a normal birthday—he had to self-isolate. He had frozen pizza for dinner—not what he had planned, a result of a long day—with his wife at a safe distance. Kaplan got married 9 months ago after meeting his wife as a first-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011.
How the virus progressed
Kaplan feels fortunate to only have had very mild symptoms.
His fever faded March 19, two days after getting tested. He felt mostly normal.
But two days later, something strange happened: he lost his sense of smell and taste, which turned out to be an emerging symptom of COVID-19.
“It was such a unique symptom that once we read those articles we were pretty certain that I would test positive,” Kaplan said.
Two days later, March 23, he received the confirmatory results. Two days after that, March 25, he started experiencing mild chest pain and shortness of breath, so he went to get a chest x-ray and other tests at Duke Hospital.
Those symptoms have now faded, and he’s outside of his two-week self-isolation period, back to normal quarantine under Durham’s stay-at-home order.
“Understandably, all of the medical professionals that I have talked with have used an abundance of caution, since we still know relatively little about the virus and people have been known to take dramatic turns for the worse in short periods of time,” Kaplan said.
The hardest part about the virus was the isolation period, forced to be away from his wife, family and friends.
“Really, though, that’s what almost all of us are going through right now, whether we have the virus or not,” Kaplan said. “The folks who really deserve our attention and support are those who are very ill and the medical professionals on the front lines of fighting this virus.”
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Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.