It was Friday the 13th, two days after Mississippi reported its first coronavirus case, and Cynthia Phillips had a scratchy throat.
The 59-year-old nurse from Greenwood didn’t worry, even when the fever kicked in. She took flu medicine and sent her husband, Jim, the pastor at North Greenwood Baptist Church, to sleep in the guest bedroom. She’d beaten the regular flu two weeks earlier and “just thought it was a relapse.”
But then Cynthia visited an after-hours clinic early the next morning, and a flu test came back negative. “Uh oh,” she thought. She drove to a COVID-19 drive-through testing site at the hospital and waved at her nurse friends through the windshield. She was told she didn’t meet the criteria for a test, which included shortness of breath. At another doctor, another test for flu and strep throat turned up empty.
Cynthia said she wasn’t tested for coronavirus until March 17, four days after developing symptoms, when the doctor she works for received several test kits. By then she’d developed a “tight cough” and had quarantined herself upstairs. She and Jim — living only feet apart — communicated by phone and FaceTime.
“She lived on Mucinex and water and whatever I put on the stairwell,” Jim, 64, said.
More than 900 Mississippians have tested positive for coronavirus, and thousands more likely will in coming weeks. They will face variations of Cynthia’s story: cough, fever, perhaps severe shortness of breath.
Like her, they may face hurdles getting tested and isolating themselves from loved ones while battling the illness.
Cynthia recovered, making her among the first Mississippians to beat the virus. She exited her quarantine Saturday, and, while she still felt weak, she was able to work in the garden Monday. But her experience is also reflective of the exhausting effort — even for a nurse, who knew what steps to take — that many who contract the potentially deadly illness will face.
Only a handful of Mississippians have gone public after coming down with the virus, and many describe varying symptoms. Richland High School football coach JJ Plummer said he first developed a bad headache that wouldn’t go away. That spread to the rest of his body and then turned into a 102.7-degree fever before he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia.
“For all the people out there who think this thing is just like the flu, I’ve had the flu before and I’ve never had anything like this hit me,” Plummer told the Clarion Ledger from the hospital. “It feels like a slow death, and it is absolutely the worst thing I have ever gone through in my life.”
Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten went home from with work with muscle aches a few weeks ago and quickly had a fever of 101.5. He wasn’t able to get a coronavirus test, but the fever soon lifted and he felt better, so he returned to work a few days later. But soon he felt ill again, with severe chest congestion and coughing. Finally he got a test — and it turned up positive, which Patten said felt “surreal.”
“I haven’t been out of town since December 2019. I haven’t even been out of Natchez since then,” he said. “I was taking all the precautions, washing my hands, social distancing, sanitizing. I was taking vitamins. Yet I still contracted the COVID virus.”
A pastor from Tippah County, Chad Bateman, who recently tested positive along with his wife, explained to WREG-TV why many likely are wary to share their story, describing fearful and hateful messages on Facebook.
“I feel like one of the lepers in the Bible right now,” he said.
The Phillipses said they decided to go public in part because of Jim’s prominent role as a church leader in Greenwood. He’d recently preached about “praying big, and praying specific. We asked for big prayers, and we asked for specific prayers, for healing,” he said.
“There are people loving on us, and it’s great,” Cynthia said.
Cynthia is unsure how she picked up the coronavirus, but the couple wonder if it could have come from a quick trip to Memphis shortly before she became ill.
They had planned to fly to Florida to see the Atlanta Braves in spring training, but Major League Baseball canceled the event just as the couple arrived at the airport. Maybe she came in close contact with someone at the airport who was ill, she said.
Cynthia said she took several steps to try to lessen the effects of the virus. She took Chloraseptic sore throat spray and gargled with Listerine a few times a day. She took Mucinex, a cold and flu medicine, and set up a “hot tea station” in her room.
She focused on coughing and taking deep breaths, “like I’d been telling my patients for 37 years, to prevent pneumonia.” She also downed some honey before going to bed, which her research suggested might help.
Sometimes, when she laid down at night and could hear wheezing in her lungs, she’d do “a Tarzan, chest-beating thing.” Known in medical terms as chest physiotherapy, it’s meant to help shake loose mucus in the lungs, she said.
The couple developed a routine. They would check in with each other throughout the day by phone or FaceTime, “coaching each other on,” said Jim. He would occasionally open the door to the stairs and place food or other necessities inside, and she would come down to retrieve them. Church members dropped off meals for the couple on a bench outside.
“We have been in a state of quarantine, I’m downstairs, she’s upstairs,” Jim said in a Facebook Live update on March 22. “I hear her walking around, I hear her coughing through the night ... I reminded her I could hear her downstairs, to take something for that if she needed to. She said, ‘No, no, no.’ The nurse that she is, she knew what she really needed to do was keep coughing, to keep her lungs as clear as possible.”
The low fever eased after about eight days, Cynthia said, and then briefly returned. She said she never felt short of breath but continued to battle a deep cough that didn’t seem to be effectively clearing mucus out of her system.
The couple ran into an unexpected hurdle early on: A broken upstairs air-conditioning system. The temperature rose to 86 degrees, and a repairman refused to come to the home due to the virus. So Jim hatched a plan to have a church member buy a window AC unit and drop it off at the house.
He put on a mask and ventured upstairs to install the unit himself. It worked.
Jim said he returned to church, which is broadcasting services on TV and online, after the couple emerged from their two-week quarantine Friday. Cynthia was feeling low on energy but was out working in the yard this week. Meanwhile, as Mississippi’s case count grows by 80 or 90 each day, the couple have begun fielding messages and calls seeking guidance from others facing the virus.
“We know some people get really desperate with this,” Jim said.
“I just try to tell them, ‘Go ahead and assume you have it,’” Cynthia said, “‘And start taking measures to take care of yourself and your family.’”