The virus that put John Bessler in the hospital — the virus that left him coughing up blood after days of fever in his apartment, alone — was at first mistaken for the common cold.
What else, after all, could it have been?
“I didn’t think he had it at the beginning,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Bessler’s wife, tells PEOPLE. “I mean, he was quarantining himself. But based on what he told me, I was far away, but I didn’t really think it.”
The “it” she is referring to is a new coronavirus which first emerged in China in late 2019. It causes the respiratory disease COVID-19 and is highly contagious, spread by coughs and sneezes from an infected person or after having contact with a surface they have touched.
In three months, the virus has spread around the world. As of Thursday, there were approximately 521,000 confirmed cases in more than 150 countries, with about 75,000 cases in the U.S.
More than 23,000 people have died, including 1,000 in America.
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The vast majority of COVID-19 patients experience only mild or moderate symptoms, but a fraction of them develop more severe complications such as interstitial pneumonia, requiring protracted hospitalizations.
The goal right now, according to health and government officials, is to slow the virus’ spread by urging people to stay home so as not to overwhelm hospitals while treatments and a vaccine are developed.
But the virus can be deceptive: Some people who have contracted it but don’t show symptoms — and who make up an unknown percentage of all coronavirus patients — are still able to transmit it. The virus can also live outside of the body for hours, even days.
Sen. Klobuchar, 59, believes her husband contracted his illness incidentally.
“We were at events in Minnesota, the kind of things you would think where you might get it, but no one we know got it: no one on our staff, no one,” she says. “And so then we come back to Washington and somehow he mysteriously must’ve gotten it, just probably by a passerby or a surface or something like that. And then he got sick like four or five days later.”
By then the couple, married since 1993, had split up for work. Bessler, 52, is a law professor at the University of Baltimore. Klobuchar, a senator in Minnesota since 2007, recently ended her presidential campaign and is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden.
When Bessler first got sick, they thought nothing of it.
“At the very beginning, I was in Minnesota and he said, ‘Oh, I have a cold. It’s just a cold, just a cold.” And I go, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ “ Klobuchar recalls. “Then I would call and I’d say, ‘Take your temperature,’ and then it was always over 100 degrees.”
Fever, cough and chest pains are signal symptoms of the coronavirus, which can otherwise seem like the common cold or flu.
“He was coughing really badly,” Klobuchar says of her husband. “And then when he coughed up the blood, that was kind of the last straw.”
Bessler was hospitalized in Virginia on Friday. His coronavirus test, taken before he went into the hospital, came back positive on Monday morning. He had pneumonia and was on oxygen — if it was the former, maybe, he would have been released to recuperate at home.
“His temperature is better, but there’s still other problems,” Klobuchar told PEOPLE on Tuesday. “And they won’t let him leave for good reason. Because a lot of people have had this, when they have it as bad as he does, and it suddenly goes worse — especially when he has pneumonia.”
“I just thank God that he is not on a ventilator, and that he’s in a stable condition,” she said then. “But he’s still there.”
On Thursday afternoon, Klobuchar announced that he had taken “a good turn” and been sent home to recover.
The absence the virus had created around him — the lack of personal care from loved ones — was another of its insidious symptoms.
“And I think one of the hardest things about this disease is that you can’t be there, and you can’t thank the health care workers,” Klobuchar says. “You can’t be by your loved one’s side and you’re just detached and you can’t even really send things to them.” (People.com Latest News) More