One year later, Utah’s first COVID-19 patient recalls ‘surreal’ experience

Mark Jorgensen says he may have some long-term effects from the disease, but doesn’t regret going on the cruise where he likely caught the coronavirus.

Mark and Jerri Jorgensen were a happy couple on a cruise ship a year ago visiting various parts of Japan. But when they both tested positive for a mysterious disease later called COVID-19, they became guinea pigs for doctors racing to figure out what the new coronavirus was and how to treat it.

Mark Jorgensen became the first Utahn to receive treatment for COVID-19 on Feb. 28, 2020, exactly one year ago. He was sent to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray after testing positive at an Air Force base in California and was among only three Utahns who had the coronavirus at that time. His wife had previously tested positive and was quarantining in Japan.

At the time, he felt “totally normal” and experienced no symptoms despite the diagnosis.

“It was puzzling to me as to why all this fuss was being made,” the 56-year-old said during a Zoom news conference Sunday, reflecting on his thoughts from a year ago.

Since Jorgensen’s diagnosis, COVID-19 has raged across the globe. Nearly 2,000 people have died in Utah, and more than 500,000 have died in the United States alone. Sports shut down for months worldwide. Preventive health measures such as mask-wearing have become politicized.

But recently, coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths are largely trending downward. People are receiving vaccines. The scientific community and the public at large know more about COVID-19 now than they did a year ago.

Jorgensen said the situation “got real” for him when his test came back positive after he initially tested negative. He thinks he caught the virus while en route back to the U.S. from Asia in a cargo plane. He said the positive, symptomatic patients were separated from the rest of the passengers by only a curtain.

“I’m sure there was a lot of transmission going on,” Jorgensen said.

Once his plane landed, Jorgensen received a test and got his diagnosis. From there, he was taken to a hospital in Fairfield, Calif., that did not have a containment area for coronavirus patients. He remembers lab technicians scurrying out of his room after drawing his blood.

And moving Jorgensen around was like something out of an espionage movie.

“It felt very surreal — the whole experience,” Jorgensen said. “It was just the police escorts and the precautions and the ambulance and kind of the stealth way they got me into the hospital.”

There was talk of transferring to Oakland, Jorgensen said, but he suggested in passing that maybe he could go somewhere in his home state. That’s where the Intermountain Healthcare facility came in.

“That was kind of one step close to home, so I was excited,” said Jorgensen, who is from St. George.

Jorgensen said he stayed in Intermountain’s isolation unit for about seven days before taking another police-escorted ambulance ride back to his St. George home, where he quarantined for another three weeks — him sleeping in the basement, his wife upstairs.

Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease expert at Intermountain, recalled how quickly things changed just in the initial stages of treating Jorgensen. He kept testing positive for the virus, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Vento that Jorgensen was no longer infectious — meaning he could leave isolation — indicating a shift in thinking on the national level.

“The lesson there is that we learn things, we have to change, we have to adjust,” Vento said. “People said not to use masks. That probably set us back quite a bit. Now we know that the data is incredible for masks, and we need to use masks and we need to accept that.”

Jorgensen said the past year has been “uneventful” for him. However, he is feeling some lingering effects that could be attributed to COVID-19. He said he has been experiencing “memory fog,” as well as an eye condition his ophthalmologist believes is related to the coronavirus. While Jorgensen was asymptomatic when he had COVID-19, the number of “long-haulers” experiencing long-term symptoms after being considered “recovered” continues to grow.

Jorgensen said he has not yet received a coronavirus vaccine and does not know when he plans to do so. While he described himself as someone who “kind of likes to see how it plays out” when it comes to the vaccine, he imagines he will follow the advice of his doctor, who has recommended to him that he receive it.

Even though Jorgensen and his wife probably contracted COVID-19 on that 2020 cruise, he doesn’t regret going on it, he says. In fact, he is currently on vacation in Costa Rica with her in the couple’s first international venture since the pandemic reached Utah.

“Obviously, we’re not letting any fear of that stop us,” Jorgensen said. “That’s just kind of our philosophy of life.”

In Vento’s opinion, COVID-19 isn’t going away. While numbers are down in Utah, there has been a plateau across the county, which Vento said could be due to “sustained transmissions of newer strains.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an upside.

“For that reason, I think the reality is it’s probably here to stay,” Vento said, “but that shouldn’t be a fear-inducing statement because we have vaccines, and we even have vaccines now with the mRNA platforms that are already being modified to address new variants.”

Vento used the analogy of a marathon to describe that people should not be complacent, even as the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are down generally.

“Marathons are 26 miles,” Vento said. “We’re probably somewhere in the teens, 20s, who knows? The point is you don’t stop the marathon at that point. You can’t say, ‘Now we’re going to finish the race.’ You have to keep running.”