A few weeks ago, midway through Londonderry student Emma Neville’s third year at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, the threat of the coronavirus seemed distant. Then it upended her life.
“First it was far away, then it was all anyone was talking about,” said Neville, 21. “One day the university said come to class but stay 6 feet apart. The next day they closed.”
Worried the borders could close, she booked a last-minute flight into New York, leaving Spain on March 14.
A week later, everything would change again, when Neville learned she had COVID-19.
Emma’s father, Bill Neville, picked her up at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on March 15. It took three hours for her to get through customs, he said.
Emma wore a surgical mask as they drove back to New Hampshire. Bill said he knew it was possible Emma had COVID-19. The day she landed in the United States, there were almost 10,000 confirmed cases in Spain, compared with 4,600 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data. It was even possible Bill had been infected during the ride from the airport in New York.
When the family gathered for dinner that night, Bill and Emma kept their distance.
“We just kept ourselves away, from the dinner table especially, and 6 to 8 feet from each other,” Bill said. “We ate with tray tables in our laps.”
Emma had a headache before she left Pamplona, and lost her appetite. By the time she was back in Londonderry, she had a fever.
“I remember I was shivering in my bed,” she said. She was exhausted, and her body ached. She barely left her room the first three days home.
Emma was obviously sick, said her mother, Liz. She thought it could be COVID-19, but Emma wasn’t coughing, wasn’t short of breath. Maybe it was just the flu.
The test, the wait
A neighbor convinced Liz that Emma should get tested. Liz called Emma’s doctor, who prescribed a COVID-19 test.
Emma was already feeling better, but she drove to a testing site in Derry on March 18. She drove into a tent and rolled down her window so medical workers could swab her nose. “It was definitely uncomfortable, a little bit painful. But it was fast,” she said. The whole thing took less than a minute.
The Nevilles waited. One of Emma’s older sisters, Claire, 23, came to visit a few times. She tried to keep 6 feet away, to stay beyond the distance that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “close contact,” where the virus can spread. But no one was too worried.
“I knew that she hadn’t been feeling her best, but she’s 21,” Claire said. “I wasn’t fearing for her life.”
They waited five days for test results.
“It was Sunday that we got the diagnosis, and everything changed,” Claire said.
She already was feeling better when the test results came in, but a doctor at Derry Medical Center told the family they could spread COVID-19 for up to two weeks. The two-week window in which the family could be contagious would begin when Emma’s ended. That meant three weeks of quarantine.
“We’ve just been hunkering down here,” Bill said.
Liz, Bill and Claire said they have had no symptoms. Neither have the two younger children in the family, both in high school. Still, they have decided they need to stay home until there is no possibility they could pass the virus to anyone else. Emma’s experience showed that a lack of symptoms doesn’t mean an absence of the virus.
“I think the important thing to know is you don’t have to have those symptoms to have it,” Liz said.
Life in quarantine
Bill, a support engineer for a software company, said he has been able to work remotely. Liz, a speech and language pathologist, has been trying to find a way to help her clients through video calls.
Claire, who lives in Manchester, had been around her sister less than her parents. But she had still been exposed and decided to quarantine herself with her family for three weeks. She had been set to start a new job but had to put those plans on hold.
“You do what you’ve got to do,” Claire said.
The family is trying to avoid close contact with each other, Bill said. “We spend a lot of time talking to each other from across the room.”
For them, having a COVID-19 case in the house has not been the end of the world.
“I don’t want to downplay it, but I don’t want to say we’re terribly concerned,” Bill said. “We don’t have any underlying health issues. There’s no one over the age of 60 here.”
He said the family would stay quarantined until they could no longer put other people in danger.
Emma said she is glad to be home with her family through the weeks of isolation, instead of alone in her apartment in Spain.
Since she started feeling better, Emma has been finishing the semester online. She had already decided to transfer to a college in the U.S. to finish her bachelor’s degree in humanities, but she will miss her friends’ graduations and never got a chance to say goodbye.
“I might never see them again,” Emma said. “That’s the biggest down side.”