EMBDEN — Jeff walked down the stairs Thursday morning. He answered the phone, huffing, drawing in labored breaths.

By the afternoon he went on a 3-mile-long walk under cloudy skies, feeling especially tired when he finished.

The only one symptom from his coronavirus infection has lingered with him two weeks after he first noticed discomfort. Now, the 61-year-old Massachusetts man, who tested positive for the COVID-19 illness March 22 while in Maine, is hopeful he’s nearing recovery after quarantining in this isolated Somerset County town. Jeff agreed to an interview this week on the condition that he not use his full name, out of fear of reprisal.

Accompanied by his 18-year-old son here at their longtime second home property, Jeff said he has been exercising, walking each day, and pausing for deep-breathing exercises four to five times daily to get oxygen in his lungs and break up any scar tissue.

He said it’s been important to maintain a positive mental attitude.

“Nobody really gives you a complete playbook, telling you what to do next in any real detail; there’s no GPS to help you navigate through this thing,” Jeff said. “First and foremost, I wanted to take control of the situation myself. … My early mindset at the start was, ‘I’m not going to let corona guide me; I’m going to guide corona out of my body.’ And I knew I had to have a healthy body: plenty of sleep, a lot of fluids, especially those with electrolytes, three meals a day for energy to fight. I couldn’t lay around; I had to get my body moving.”

THE DIAGNOSIS 

When did Jeff contract COVID-19? Neither he nor health officials could determine that.

But Jeff, who is the general manager for a company in the electronics industry and travels often, said it’s possible he became infected during business trips to California and Chicago the previous two weeks before coming to Maine. In retrospect, he recalls being in many vulnerable situations in those states, such as the airport and in taxicabs.

Jeff and his family have been coming up to their second home in Somerset County for two decades.

Positive SARS-COV2 coronavirus test Contributed photo

They arrived in Maine on Thursday, March 12, primarily bound for the University of Maine’s accepted student visit day on March 13. But that Thursday, as the coronavirus pandemic began to grow worse in the U.S. each day and confirmed cases quickly multiplied, the University of Maine and other colleges began announcing plans to move students off-campus and postpone scheduled events.

So, instead of spending the weekend and then driving home, as planned, they decided to hunker down at their second home in Embden. The Somerset County town, with a population of 940 year-round residents that typically doubles in the summer when nonresidents arrive, is surrounded by the Kennebec River and the Carrabassett River.

“When we came up, everyone knew what was going on in China and Asia, but there wasn’t much going on here in the U.S. yet,” Jeff said. “We didn’t come specifically to get away, we were here before there were all these protocols.”

Jeff and his family remained in Maine into the following week. His symptoms of breathless/chest pressure came on suddenly Wednesday, March 18. He decided to see how he felt over the coming 24 to 48 hours before going to get checked, which he did at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, about 20 miles away. He was screened and tested, with the results coming back positive the morning of Sunday, March 22.

Jeff would stay behind in quarantine with his 18-year-old son at the Embden home while the rest of the family headed home to Massachusetts. His son has not had any symptoms, and Jeff has been wearing a mask.

Last week, he went on a Boston sports radio show to talk about his diagnosis and testing.

Jeff counts himself lucky that his symptoms have only ever been on the mild side — no fever, coughing or sneezing — and he hasn’t had to be hospitalized. The worst it has been is a feeling of faintness (“Am I drowning?”) after exerting himself too much.

During the course of the illness, Jeff has experienced a loss of appetite. But he’s been determined to stay as fit and healthy as possible, so he’s forced himself to eat three times a day — even when he doesn’t feel like it. And he’s switched much of his liquid intake to drinks with electrolytes.

“If I’m moving around on a flat surface, I just pace myself and listen to my body; it tells me when to stop. There was a time, on a Saturday night around 9 o’clock, I went upstairs quick and I started gasping, and what ran through my mind was, ‘I am drowning?’ I had to settle myself down and lay on the bed.”

LIVING WITH COVID-19

Meanwhile, Jeff, on his own, had started extensively tracing all of his known contacts over the previous weeks, calling businesses that checked their surveillance cameras, for instance. Aided also by health officials, the meticulous forensics experience was “a real eye-opener” into the technology and detail that goes into checking up on known contacts.

“There was no positive diagnosis with anybody I made contact with, not even with my wife or kids,” Jeff said. “I haven’t had any coughing or sneezing like other people have had; it’s all been in my chest. That’s probably a big part of why (no one contracted the infection from him).”

Jeff, 61, walks through a wooded area near his secondary home in Embden. Jeff, who was diagnosed with the virus on March 22, said that shortness of breath is the only symptom he’s currently having. He is active while practicing distancing at his wooded home where he goes on daily walks up to 3 miles in length. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

While some things might have been easier had he contracted the virus while in Massachusetts (such as closer proximity to health care services and groceries), Jeff acknowledges the benefit of being isolated from others has been important too.

“I can walk every day and not see another human being. My doctor suggested a half-mile walk every day. Depending on how I’m feeling, I’ll go a mile to 3 miles a day,” he said.

In addition to exercise, Jeff said he’s also focused on making sure his body gets enough rest, turning in for bed at night by 9 p.m. and letting himself sleep in as long as needed in the morning.

He’s feeling breathless, though, even while lying on the couch.

“I’m definitely one of the lucky ones,” he said. “The pressure on my chest is all gone. For me right now, it’s shortness of breath. That’s the only symptom I have left.”

Jeff said the experience has shown him the generosity of others. His son has been a big help around the house, and one of his neighbors has delivered groceries to his front porch.

Above all, the experience has shown Jeff the “absolute A-game material” from staff at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, where health care officials conducted several post-diagnosis follow-ups and were quick to return his calls. “I don’t know what I would have done without them; I’m really grateful for the way they rallied around me,” he said.

And he’s watched over the last two weeks as the cases have continued to rise sharply in Maine — to 376 confirmed cases and seven deaths as of Thursday — and he agrees with the measures the state has taken to order residents to stay at home and for out-of-staters to stay away. Of Maine’s total cases, 94 people have recovered from the illness, a statistic that will not include Jeff because he’ll be instead counted by his primary residence in Massachusetts.

Jeff, 61, who tested positive for coronavirus, is seen Thursday on the deck at his secondary home in Embden. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

But even as he looks ahead to recovery, he’s not sure when and how that will come. He’s planning to remain in Embden over this weekend and speak with his primary care physician and Redington officials in the coming days on follow-up testing. Yet he remains unclear on what the threshold will be to declare he has recovered.

“My advice for anybody now … You can be carrying this thing around and not know, like in my case,” Jeff said. “I never would have come up here if I thought I was carrying this thing.”

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said there are two protocols, based on the availability of testing, for determining someone has recovered. The first is a test-based strategy, in which there is resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications; improvement in respiratory symptoms; and negative results of medical test conducted twice 24 hours part. The second is a non-test-based strategy, in which at least three days (72 hours) have passed since recovery defined “as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms” and at least seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared.

“Maine CDC continues to urge providers in Maine to base their recommendations to patients on the U.S. CDC guidelines,” Long said.

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