Health

When Christy Brown went to the Speed Ball on March 7, she felt great.

“I didn’t know I was contagious,” she said. “I went to the Speed Ball because I was there to have fun and party. I’ve got a picture I’m looking at that they took at the ball…I don’t think I’ve ever looked healthier.”

Five days later, 73-year-old Brown, one of Louisville’s best-known philanthropists, was in the University of Louisville Hospital’s emergency room. She was really sick — but noticeably absent from her symptoms were fever or breathing problems: what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are the most likely symptoms of COVID-19.

“My [symptoms] were intestinal; I had very serious vomiting and diarrhea and stomach pains,” Brown said. “But no respiratory problems to date, and also no fever to date.”

But a test showed she was positive for COVID-19.

As COVID-19 caused by the new coronavirus sickens and kills more people around the world —there were 15,219 confirmed cases in the U.S. at noon Friday — medical professionals are learning more about the virus. And while research has told us that some people may have COVID-19 and may be asymptomatic, anecdotes suggest that others may be sick with different symptoms than what health organizations have described as typical.

In Chicago, a pediatrician tested a patient with a toothache, and found they had COVID-19, according to an article from ProPublica. A New York Times story by a Yale School of Medicine professor similarly found that a group of eight people who had tested positive for the virus in Seattle also didn’t show respiratory symptoms: “They had body aches; most had a fever; many had nausea; some, vomiting,” wrote Dr. Lisa Sanders.

In a letter released on Sunday, the American Gastroenterological Association warned providers that GI symptoms like nausea and diarrhea may be present in as many as half of confirmed cases of COVID-19. Research suggests the coronavirus may affect many different organs including the intestinal tract, but scientists are still learning about the virus.

For her part, Brown doesn’t know where she was exposed to COVID-19 and hasn’t been out of the country recently. At least two other Speed Ball attendees — Kentucky Author Forum founder Mary Moss Greenebaum and Dr. Alex Gerassimides, Mayor Greg Fischer’s wife — have tested positive for the virus as well.

“I went to the University of Louisville emergency room, I walked in. That’s why I was tested,” Brown said. “I had a stomach bug, but if there hadn’t been all this press about this stuff, I wouldn’t have gone.”

On Friday on WFPL’s “In Conversation,” U of L Vice Dean for Research Jon Klein said that, between three of the school’s labs, they have the capacity to test about 220 people for coronavirus a day. The state labs can run about 37 tests a day. As of Thursday, Kentucky had only tested 640 people for the virus and testing is still not widely available.

In an emailed statement, U of L Health spokeswoman Carolyn Callahan said that “while UofL Health has an adequate supply of testing materials, out of an abundance of caution, we are following CDC guidelines and limiting those tests only to patients in the high-risk groups or who need hospital-level care.”

The CDC guidelines tell clinicians to use their judgment to determine whether to test patients for COVID-19, though they suggest giving priority to hospitalized patients, older adults, people with chronic medical conditions and anyone who had close contact with a person confirmed to have COVID-19.

In the meantime, Brown is resting at home. She and her children contributed $1.5 million to a recent fund to help Louisville businesses and households affected by the economic impact of the virus.

“It’s a very mysterious time and it’s going to take a lot of patience and a lot of being very supportive of people who are out there on the front lines,” Brown said. “And that’s really my biggest plea — that people understand that.”

Have you been tested for or diagnosed with COVID-19 — or sought a test you were denied? We’d like to hear your story. Email us at news@wfpl.org or call 502-814-6550 and leave a message.

Disclosure: Christy Brown is a financial supporter of Louisville Public Media and WFPL. 

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.