Chula Vista Councilman Steve Padilla / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Late Saturday night, in a video shared on social media, Chula Vista Councilman Steve Padilla, who’s also chair of the state Coastal Commission, became the first elected official in California to announce that he’s tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The symptoms started Wednesday afternoon, while he was in Santa Cruz for three days of meetings for the California Coastal Commission, he said. By Friday morning, he was laid up and had to skip the last day of meetings. By Saturday afternoon, he received a call telling him his coronavirus test had come back positive.

“I was just dead silent for a few minutes,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Getting a test wasn’t difficult, he said. After taking himself to UCSD’s Thornton Hospital Emergency Department in La Jolla, he took a battery of tests. The one for the novel coronavirus came back positive.

It hasn’t been fun.

“My body is fighting like hell to battle this thing,” he said.

We caught up with him for a few minutes Monday to see how he was doing. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

So, how are you feeling?

It’s really like the worst flu you’ve ever had. It’s not fun.

It’s noticeably worse than a typical flu?

In my case at least, it’s been really bad. Tremendous body aches. Constant fever. Just a high fever all the time. It feels really awful. Overall, I’m generally in very good health. So I’m told, because of that, this is probably what it will be like for me for the next 10 to 14 days.

Can you walk me through from when you got sick, until you got tested?

It came on suddenly. I was in Santa Cruz for Coastal Commission meetings; I flew up Tuesday afternoon for meetings scheduled for Wednesday through Friday. By Wednesday afternoon, I had a little sniffle. It was like a runny nose. We all know that media keeps saying that that’s not a symptom of coronavirus, so I thought I was just having a cold. On Wednesday, we had a short hearing. By Thursday afternoon I was feeling really crummy. I went to my room and skipped the Friday morning hearing. I had a colleague chair the hearing for me. So Friday, I came home, I just couldn’t wait to come home. Friday evening, I got pretty feverish. Achy, headache and a really high fever. It freaked me out because I took 1,000 milligrams of Tylenol, acetaminophen. Went to sleep at about 10. Woke up a few hours later just shivering like crazy, with a 102-degree fever. I thought, Jesus, I just took 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, and now I’m at 102; what would it have been without Tylenol?

So I called the doctor, or the advice nurse, health care provider, whatever you want to say. They asked me some questions, where I’d been, when I traveled. And I told them that when I went to Santa Cruz, I flew through San Jose. Around then, apparently, lots of TSA agents in San Jose had tested positive. We have no idea if there’s a connection. But they thought that might have been my exposure. They said, “get your ass to the ER.” I got to the Thornton UCSD Emergency Department early Saturday morning. They were great. There was a separate seating area for people who might be exposed. Then they came over, they worked me up and found a little pneumonia. They brought my fever down. They tested me for influenza and for COVID-19. Of course, influenza came back negative.

And then they sent me home. They thought I probably had a small flu bug a while ago, which led to pneumonia, and that’s what’s causing the fever. They told me to isolate until I received the results of my COVID swab. Then I got the call right around noon Saturday. My first symptoms were on Wednesday afternoon, and by Saturday afternoon they told me the results.

Have you had to go back in for any treatment since you received the tests?

They told me to stay home. I followed up with the doctor once because of the constant fever. The only thing that brings it down is acetaminophen. It’s a little concerning for your liver to take 4,000 milligrams every 24 hours. So they told me to alternate that with ibuprofen. And I’ve been in contact with my physician.

What they’re looking for is, since I have mild asthma, is if I have any difficulty breathing. Then they’d put me back in the hospital. I have coughing fits here and there. But I’m breathing fine. I otherwise just feel like you-know-what.

Did you get any sense that they were apprehensive to test you, or that there was any difficulty to get the test?

I got no impression like that. It was professional, matter of fact. My understanding is, since I have mild asthma, and I traveled through San Jose, they probably looked at those little things and said, “it’s better we test him.” And apparently UCSD has the most rapid test there is in the county. So they tested me, swabbed for everything.

You’re a public official, meaning you’re in contact with probably more people than just about anyone. Did they have you trace your social network, to see who else you might have infected?

I made that evaluation right away. The conclusion I came to was, it was just too much. There was no way. That’s why I decided to make a public statement. It was the only way I could contact everyone. As an official, I talk to a lot of people. Just over the last few weeks, there were a number of public events and meetings I’ve been to, so the responsible thing to do was to be public and open about it, so that anyone in the general public who has been in contact with me, the only way they’d know was if I went public.

Do you know if any other public officials have been tested based on being in contact with you?

I believe some have been tested. One of the first things I did was contact my colleagues and the executives at the Coastal Commission and the city, to let them know so they could look at their own health. But yeah, we’re in contact with a lot of people as public officials. It’s a very social thing.

I saw you out on Election Night. Do you know if you might have been exposed then?

I have no way of knowing. I’m told I could have been exposed anywhere from a few days or a couple weeks prior to symptoms. So in that regard, it could fall close to that. There was Election Night, but also an event at the Olympic Training Center where I was handing out metals, there was the Victory Fund brunch in La Jolla with a lot of elected officials. There’s just a lot of stuff, not to mention hearings and meetings and stuff like that.

Do you have any special insight from your experience that you want to share?

I think people should take it very seriously. I’ve heard conversations from people about how governments are overreacting, for, like, shutting down bars and restaurants. For me, most likely this is just a really bad flu. But this could be deadly for many people. We’ll have a therapeutic treatment for this by end of the year probably. It’s more contagious than the flu, and has a higher mortality rate. What’s it taught me is: It’s here, you don’t know if you’ve been exposed – you can be asymptomatic and be exposed. People need to follow guidance – stay in as much as you can, call grandma instead of visiting her, respect the elderly population. It’s so real. People need to just isolate a bit. It’s no joke. Even for a relatively healthy guy, this is not a fun experience. This is intense. My body is fighting like hell to battle this thing. My fever is constantly high. I can’t imagine how bad this would be for anybody who is vulnerable. It’s very serious. People need to take it seriously.

We were following state guidelines by having the hearings we had when I got sick, but it makes you wonder if we shouldn’t have been doing the stuff we’re doing now a couple of weeks ago.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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