Q&A with Rep. Ben McAdams on contracting COVID-19, being hospitalized and the government’s response

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Washington • Rep. Ben McAdams is one of five members of Congress confirmed to have COVID-19 and the only federally elected official — so far — hospitalized because of severe effects of the coronavirus. He was released Saturday after eight days under supervision of health care professionals.

With more than 800 confirmed cases in Utah and tens of thousands nationwide, we asked McAdams what it was like to find out he was infected, the impacts on his health and efforts by the federal government to address the pandemic. (This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.)

First off, how are you? Do you have any lingering effects?

I’m doing much better. I’m still pretty weak. But, you know, all the symptoms of the virus have passed. I lost over 10 pounds while I was in the hospital. My body, I think, is just trying to adjust to a new equilibrium. If I get up and walk around, I’m still out of breath. But it’s more just a factor of how hard this hit me.

Did anyone in your family develop symptoms?

No, which is amazing, because I was isolated from society but not from my family for almost a week, so we’re really happy that nobody came down with symptoms. My family’s quarantined because they were exposed to me. ... They’re quarantined for another week.

What was it like to feel sick, test positive and then spend a week in the hospital?

It just kind of got worse and worse in phases. So, at first I just felt a little bit tired and a little bit sick and immediately isolated myself. But I didn’t think I had the coronavirus because I didn’t feel that sick as I had heard people were feeling. That was on Saturday evening. And, on Monday, I thought I am getting over it and we’re going to move on — [coughs] they said I’ll have this cough for a month — so that’s another lingering symptom. By Tuesday, it really started getting worse. And that’s when I called my doctor and said that I was having trouble breathing, my chest was tight and my fever had gone up substantially. So they recommended that I get a test, and it was positive. But I was able to still continue to work from home and stay pretty active. I didn’t feel good, but I was still pretty active at home.

And then, on Friday, it took another turn for the worse. And that’s where my breathing became really difficult. I was just panting. I couldn’t catch my breath no matter what I did, my fever was high. ... So that’s when I called and they asked me to come in and get checked out at the hospital.

For eight days, I was just asleep or trying to go to sleep. It was like a week just disappeared. I was really down for the count. It was really serious at that point. It had progressed beyond just a bad case of the flu when it became a respiratory issue and I was having trouble breathing and my oxygen levels weren’t adequate unless I was on oxygen. I still think I was lucky in that I never needed a ventilator. ... I felt awful like I was hit by a truck.

What was the scariest moment for you?

I had my lungs X-rayed several times and seeing some of the damage in my lungs was scary and then feeling that as I was struggling to breathe. I still want to keep it in perspective. There are people a lot worse than I was. But realizing that this had moved from a fever into a respiratory issue that is affecting my lungs and my ability to breathe and not knowing where it would go.

Did you have a lot of people calling, emailing and reaching out?

I was able to talk to my family several times a day then. And I talked to Nichole [Dunn], my chief of staff, once or twice a day just to know we were on top of things there. But I did receive a lot of messages on Facebook and Twitter and a lot of text messages. I wasn’t able to respond to most. I just didn’t have the energy. But it was really comforting to have people reaching out and to let me know they were praying for me. And really, that gave me strength and was very much appreciated and very helpful in some of those kind of scary moments to know that there are a lot of people out there praying for me.

Do you believe Utah officials, including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, your successor there, are making the right decisions?

I just don’t have the access to the experts that they have and the data that they have. But I actually have been really impressed at how Utah has come together, how the state of Utah, Gov. [Gary] Herbert, Lt. Gov. [Spencer] Cox seemed to be working well with our mayors and Mayor Wilson, specifically. I guess I’m reading between the lines that there have been some differences of opinion, but they haven’t let that get in the way of working to serve the people of Utah. I’m happy to see the way that Utah public officials have worked together to really slow the spread of this.

Even though you didn’t get to vote, did Congress do the right thing on the most recent stimulus bill?

It’s certainly not perfect. There was a need for some expediency; it needed to get done quickly. And so I think we’re seeing some of the areas where that bill needs to be improved, could have been improved. But I think we really needed to act quickly to get aid to those who needed it. And so, on the whole, it was important and the right thing to do. I still remain concerned specifically about some of the potential for fraud or abuse from people out there who are going to use this as an opportunity to profit themselves. We need to continue to exercise oversight of how these dollars are spent by those who receive them and to make sure that they get to those who they were intended to help.

Is there more President Donald Trump could do to help in this situation?

It’s important to make it abundantly clear that this is serious and this is real and not leave any doubt in the minds of the public. And so I think he’s done a better job more recently of making sure people understand that. And it’s important in every venue and every opportunity to dispel the myths, that this has got to be taken seriously and we should heed the advice of the public health professionals who are working to save lives. And Utah, really, we haven’t hit the worst still; the cases are still increasing. We’ve got to be very careful to flatten our curve because I know firsthand, having spent a week in the hospital, I was so grateful that our hospital had the capacity to care for me and others who were in even more serious condition than I was. And we could find ourselves here in a few weeks without some of that capacity. And that’s scary.

Do you believe the pandemic is being politicized?

There are some who have tried to politicize it. And that’s something that I think we should avoid. Politicizing it, figuring out who to point a finger at does nothing to help protect the American people and slow the spread of the virus. So I think it’s important to just focus on — like we’re doing here in Utah — what we can do to slow the spread and flatten the curve. And I think what’s important is that we highlight to the American people how serious this is and how important it is to follow the guidelines of public health officials.

What would you say to people who think the restrictions and social distancing are an overreaction? Do you believe people are taking the threat seriously?

We need to recognize the economic pain this is causing a lot of businesses, a lot of families, and that’s real. Governor Herbert wouldn’t be asking us to try to isolate and stay home if it wasn’t serious. And, you know, I recognize the hardship that it’s placing on a lot of Utah families, but it is important.

What advice do you have for everyone reading this?

If you are young and healthy, you may have a sense of confidence that even if you do get it, it can’t be that bad. I would say you can’t predict how it might affect you. I’m happy that I followed very religiously the guidelines that were given by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and by the governor and isolated myself as soon as I felt the slightest symptoms. I think that it would be a weight on anyone’s shoulders to know that you exposed someone else. You don’t want to be the cause of somebody else getting it who does have a compromised immune system. So take it seriously for yourself, take it seriously for your friends and loved ones who may have a compromised immune system and then take it seriously for our community. We don’t want to find ourselves in a place where our hospital system doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the numbers of cases.

The health professionals who cared for me, fortunately they had all of the personal protective equipment that they needed to make sure that I didn’t infect them: gloves and masks and robes and everything. ... But, you know, as the number of cases rise, we can really go through some of that equipment pretty quickly and find our supplies depleted. And I worry about them. And these are the men and women who really are on the front lines of this war. And we need to do everything we can to protect them. So I think that’s what my advice to people would be, to take it seriously. If you aren’t worried for yourself, you should be. You don’t want to be part of spreading this to someone else who who might be hit harder because of their health conditions.