SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – When Ken Oster returned to his Sullivan County home from a vacation in early March, he didn’t know that his 15 minutes of fame would soon follow.
The dry cough was first. Chills and a fever followed. Then the Washington Post article with familiar pictures of the small cruise ship where Oster and his wife had just spent the past week in Egypt.
Health department officials arrived at Oster’s home on March 9, draped in protective equipment with a nose swab. Less than 24 hours later, Oster learned that he received the first COVID-19 diagnosis in northeast Tennessee, and the seventh known case in the state.
The Sullivan County Health Department announced the case on March 10 while Oster and his wife entered self-quarantine for the next two weeks.
COVID-19 wasn’t Oster’s first thought when his symptoms began, but after learning through an article that some friends on the ship tested positive, the picture began to clear.
“All four of them had tested positive so it stood to reason that I did indeed have the coronavirus,” Oster said.
The ship that Oster and his wife boarded in early March ended up perpetuating the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. and in other countries. According to The Washington Post article that alerted Oster of his exposure, a Taiwanese American woman who boarded the ship in late January infected crew members with the virus, and the crew members, in turn, infected dozens of tourists across four cruises, including Oster.
At age 70 and diagnosed with a heart condition, Oster carries several labels that would mark him as a vulnerable population to COVID-19. He describes his experience with the virus as “a bad flu,” and experience symptoms for about a week.
He said his wife never received a COVID-19 test, but suffered several days of severe exhaustion that he now attributes to a COVID-19 infection.
Oster remained in quarantine once he arrived back at his home, but he said he doesn’t know if he could have infected other travelers in airports or on the flight back.
In a follow-up article, The Washington Post reported that the cluster of cases connected to the Asara boosted international spread of the novel coronavirus. Oster and his wife boarded the small ship on February 26, and according to the Post, officials knew about the exposure three days before passengers disembarked on March 4.
“We didn’t hear anything about it,” Oster said. ” but the week after we were there, they quarantined the boat and kept all the people on it for a period of time.”
Six months after his illness, Oster said he doesn’t suffer from any lingering complications from COVID-19. He dons a disposable blue mask to volunteer at Tennessee High School, where he taught math and Spanish for 12 years.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not known whether people like Oster can be reinfected with COVID-19.
“I think it’s kind of unreal that the wearing of a mask has become divisive,” he said. “For me, it’s become common sense.
“I’m trying to protect myself but I’m also trying to protect others.”