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Finally, state Sen. Luz Escamilla thought, she’d managed to get through a legislative session without succumbing to a cold or the flu.
She typically comes down with some kind of illness during the grueling lawmaking marathon that takes place in the dead of winter, but it seemed she’d steered clear of infection this time around.
“I was like, victory!” the Salt Lake City Democrat said.
Then, a few days later, a wave of fatigue hit her. She started feeling flushed and overheated.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, those were the first signs she’d contracted COVID-19. It would be a few days before she became the first state lawmaker diagnosed with the infection that has sickened more than 1,200 Utahns and killed seven.
Escamilla’s condition never deteriorated enough for admission to a hospital. Her husband, who also tested positive for the novel virus, was also able to remain at home through the illness.
Still, the disease that has shadowed her household for weeks is unlike any other that Escamilla has experienced.
There was the moment she had to explain to her young children that their mother couldn’t hug or kiss them. There was the constant worry about transmitting the infection to her 66-year-old mother, who lives with them. There was anxiety as she and her husband kept monitoring their fevers and breathing patterns, wondering how bad is bad enough to seek help at a hospital.
“The unknown is probably the worst,” she said.
When she first started feeling sick, she chalked up her symptoms to post-session exhaustion. In the few days since the Legislature had adjourned March 12, she hadn’t had time to rest, bouncing between filing for reelection and stocking up on groceries as her family prepared to shelter in place.
But her symptoms only got worse — graduating to shortness of breath and wrenching neck and back pain that kept her awake at night.
“That’s pretty unique to this virus,” the 42-year-old Escamilla said. “You feel like you’re getting beat up.”
On March 17, her doctor told her he could hear her labored breathing over the phone but that she didn’t qualify for a coronavirus test because her temperature wasn’t high enough.
So she waited.
A couple of days later, her husband, Juan Carlos, 41, began complaining of the same symptoms, telling Escamilla that even his eyeballs ached.
But the two were still unsure they were suffering from the coronavirus or some other illness and kept trying to get through it at home. That is, until, Juan Carlos’ blood pressure dropped so low he lost consciousness.
By then, both Escamilla and her husband were running fevers of 103 degrees, and their doctor told them it was time to get tested for COVID-19. Both came back positive.
Since she was fresh off the legislative session, when she’d been crammed in the Capitol with scores of lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public, Escamilla said she decided she’d have to make her diagnosis public. On March 22, the Senate issued the news release reporting that the lawmaker had tested positive for the disease.
So far, she’s the only sitting state legislator to announce a COVID-19 diagnosis, although at least two other Utah political figures have been infected. Former House Speaker Bob Garff is one of the seven Utahns who has died from the disease. And U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams was hospitalized for eight days with COVID-19, unable to breathe without oxygen.
Escamilla’s physicians also considered admitting her to the hospital because her lungs were already weak from a bout of pneumonia earlier in the year, after running for Salt Lake City mayor during the previous months. Ultimately, they decided she’d be safer at home and put her on steroids for her breathing.
With Escamilla and her husband too exhausted to do much, the family has leaned on the “outpouring of love and support” from community members and church friends, who have dropped off meals and other gifts outside the house, she said.
Still, recovery has been slow and painful.
Escamilla’s low point came when her 5-year-old began showing symptoms of the virus. While her daughter ended up getting better on her own, Escamilla and her husband had to consider sending their child to the hospital without her parents.
“That was the worst part of this whole thing," she said. "That my 5-year-old might have to go to the hospital alone, without mom and dad.”
It’s been about two weeks since her diagnosis, and Escamilla is feeling better but still hasn’t shaken her cough. As she shifts back into her job and legislative role, an hourlong virtual meeting will wipe her out. Her vision is blurrier than usual, and her senses of taste and smell still aren’t back to normal.
Usually when she comes down with the flu or a cold, it takes her only a few days to bounce back. But this?
“This one," she said, “is like eternal.”