Dr. Seth Krosner, left, and Phil Johnson, were two of the earliest people in the county to become infected with the coronavirus. / Photo courtesy of Dr. Seth Krosner

Local actor Phil Johnson’s new play opened and closed on the same Friday night in March, thanks to a ban on public events. Within days, the production was forgotten, and Johnson struggled to get through a rough bout with the novel coronavirus. His husband had also fallen ill.

Johnson and his husband, trauma surgeon Dr. Seth Krosner, were among the earliest people to become sick with COVID-19 in the county. Krosner feared that Johnson, who was laid out for weeks, might decline and even die.

Their grueling experience offers insight into the struggles of those who have “mild” cases of the coronavirus but are still deeply ill for weeks. “It makes me realize how much more vigilant we all have to be,” said Krosner, who still has a nagging cough. “When I see people out in stores without masks, it’s just so wrong.”

Johnson and Krosner, who are both in their late 50s and live in University Heights, suspect they were infected by a New York friend who visited them in mid-March to see the play. “She came in, and she was perfectly healthy with no signs of being sick,” Johnson said.

Earlier that week, Washington state continued to have the highest number of confirmed cases in the nation, outpacing California and New York, and Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announced that they were diagnosed with the virus.

Dizziness, Chills and Never-Ending Coughs

The friend became ill the following week upon her return to New York, as did Johnson. He developed a fever on Tuesday, March 17, four days after his play opened and then had to close due to fears about the virus. At that point, fewer than 60 people in the county were confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus. The total has since topped 3,400.

The friend recovered in a few days, but Johnson was sick for three weeks, coughing so much every minute that he couldn’t hold a conversation.

“I had night sweats, then chills in the morning when I couldn’t get warm, and my sense of taste and smell went away. I couldn’t concentrate or read, and I was dizzy. I would just lie there with a slight tendency to complain,” he said.

While he only felt short of breath once, Johnson also experienced an extraordinary level of weakness.

Was it like the flu? Yes and no, Johnson said. “I’ve had a flu that was almost as bad, but that was for three days. This was two weeks where I was stuck at that level.”

Fears of a Deadly Decline During Second Week

Krosner became ill himself with a milder case of the disease, and he took a test that also turned up positive. Several days passed, he said, and “I started reading in the medical literature about a subset who did OK for five to seven days and suddenly turned much worse. That was around the time when it would happen to us. I didn’t tell Phil. I wasn’t going to say, ‘Oh, by the way, some patients get deathly ill starting within 48 hours.’”

Research has since offered more evidence about the danger of a “second-week crash” that jolts some COVID-19 patients from seeming to be on the mend to suffering from life-threatening complications.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has also confirmed that the loss of smell and taste, which both Krosner and Johnson experienced, is a top symptom of the coronavirus. “I took down the spice jars from the cupboard but I couldn’t smell anything,” Johnson recalled.

Since he had a milder case, Krosner expected to be back to work as a trauma surgeon at Scripps Mercy Hospital within a matter of days. Instead, he said, “I was off work for almost three weeks.”

Now: Uncertainty, Worry and Gratitude

Both men recovered from the coronavirus without being hospitalized. Now, Johnson is pondering what’s next for performers like himself. A veteran of community theater and Broadway, he’s the artistic director of the Roustabouts Theatre, which put on the ill-fated play – “gUnTOPIA” – that was forced to close on opening night, Friday the 13th. It’s a dark comedy about a seemingly healthy society that’s struck by a revealing tragedy.

Sounds more timely than ever. But the play’s future is uncertain, as is the business of live performance.

“The theater business is dead. It literally died in a week,” Johnson said. “I know so many people who have no work and may live alone without the connections they need. They’re not handling it well. So many don’t know what’s next.”

As for Krosner, he’s back at work as a trauma surgeon. His patient load has dwindled, and the patients themselves have changed. Fewer are victims of accidents since fewer people are driving, he said, but he’s seeing more patients who pay the price for postponing hospital visits out of fear of the virus. “I’m seeing much worse cases of problems like appendicitis because people have tried to sit it out at home a little too long.”

He’s also become more unforgiving of careless people in public who don’t take precautions seriously. At the same time, he’s especially thankful for those who put themselves in harm’s way.

“I never leave the grocery store,” he said, “without thanking people for being there and working.”

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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