The good news for Josh Reiner is that he is recovering from one of Minnesota's first confirmed cases of COVID-19. The bad news is that he isn't sure when he can emerge from isolation in the basement and see his wife and daughters.
The pandemic hit home for this Edina family when Reiner flew back from work in London on March 12 and started coughing later that evening.
State health officials discouraged testing for him, because at that point England wasn't a high-risk country and was exempt from the U.S. travel ban. But on a family trip to a bookstore in Uptown Minneapolis the next day, wife Jennifer grew concerned about her husband's frequent coughing and dropped him at a nearby Allina urgent care clinic.
"This doesn't seem right," she told him.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused anxiety, confusion and even stigma since the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, that has infected more than 370,000 people worldwide. That includes 235 Minnesota cases identified through testing.
The Reiners discussed their experience to underscore the real, local threat of COVID-19, and to encourage people to stay at home and use social distancing to reduce the transmission of the virus.
"Look," Josh said, "we're in a new world here."
He had traveled to Spain in February and to London for work March 10 but doesn't know when he was infected. Extreme jet lag didn't help, but he said he was coughing and feverish and weak back home and slept 36 of the 48 hours of the March 14-15 weekend.
His positive test result came back March 16, and his isolation in the basement began. When his breathing became labored, his wife called a doctor, who told Josh to count his breaths per minute to see if he was struggling too much.
"When you have a dry cough it's hard to take deep breaths," Josh said.
Upstairs, the rest of the family did what they could to help. They prepared meals on paper plates and walked them halfway down the staircase. His daughters, ages 14, 12 and 8, drew pictures, taped them to a favored snack of beef jerky sticks, and lobbed them into the basement for him.
Jennifer and the two oldest daughters sought testing themselves, giving nasal swab samples at one of the last drive-through appointments scheduled by M Health Fairview until it canceled them due to a shortage of testing supplies at the state public health lab.
Jennifer said it has been difficult waiting since that time for the test results. The girls were preoccupied with the newness of being home from school and video chats with friends, but their mother said she worried every time she heard a cough.
"Every tickle of my throat, I feel like, 'Oh my god, it's happening,' " she said.
It's a frustration shared by other Minnesota families.
Kim Gibbons got sick along with her husband and daughter after recent travel from their home in New Brighton to the Dominican Republic, but they couldn't get tested late last week for COVID-19. Without knowing if they had the infection, the ill parents weren't allowed to drive their 13-year-old daughter to the emergency room when her fever spiked and she said it felt like her bed was tipping sideways.
Instead, their 17-year-old son, who wasn't sick, had to drive his sister and watch as gowned medical staff took her alone into a hospital emergency room. A FaceTime call once she was in the room helped calm nerves.
Gibbons said she also was upset at the lack of testing because she is taking medication for an autoimmune disorder, and her son has asthma, which could complicate any COVID-19 infections. "I don't want to take away tests from other people who truly need it," she said, "but it would be nice to know if we have it, and if we will then be immune to it so we can go out and help other people."
Cullen Murphy, 32, has isolated himself in his Minneapolis apartment since last week after feeling fatigue and shortness of breath — which was unusual for the wintertime biker. An online clinic practitioner told him just to sit tight without a test.
"My answer came couched in 'We're not sure it's this, but it probably is so you should stay home.' It would just be nice to know," he said.
About 80% of COVID-19 cases cause only mild symptoms. The virus also hasn't caused as many illnesses among children, for reasons that still perplex health officials.
As a result, Jennifer Reiner said she was somewhat hoping that test results would come back showing that she and her two oldest daughters had mild cases of infection and could put it behind them. Many neighbors have helped out with food deliveries and support, and she said she wants to be able to return those favors.
She said it's been hard to hear so much coughing from the basement and not be able to provide comfort. Josh Reiner said it's hard to hear his family upstairs and not be a part of it with the exception of FaceTime calls. Remote work has been a helpful distraction.
Their youngest daughter got upset once, wondering what would happen if she got sick and she had to go down to the basement all alone.
"Mommy will take one for the team," Jennifer said, though more likely her husband would spend isolation with the youngest daughter, if she were to become infected.
The Reiner family finally got the long-awaited answers on Monday — tests came back negative for Jennifer and the two oldest girls.
So the quarantine continues. Jennifer and the girls have a few more days under state health protocols to stay away from others and see if they develop symptoms. Jennifer also will be taking a malaria drug as part of a University of Minnesota study to see if it keeps her from getting sick.
Meanwhile, Josh woke up Monday with a return of his cough. As much as he wants to get out of the basement, he said he won't do that until after he is free of symptoms.
Cough medicine might have been masking the fact that he is still sick, he said. "Maybe this is my body saying, 'No, you do need to get rid of this stuff.' "
Staff Writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744