Local COVID-19 survivors including Washington County “patient zero” speak on experience


JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Washington County, Tenn.’s COVID-19 “patient zero” is grateful he didn’t spread the virus beyond his own household. James Allen wouldn’t want anyone to go through what he did.

““When I woke up and I didn’t feel good I thought, hmm, so this might be it,” Allen said Thursday. I think it was (March) 17th, and felt like I got hit by a truck. Whole body hurt head to toe.”

James Allen

Allen spoke to WJHL in the dining room of the Blackthorn Club, where he’s executive chef. Two patrons with him could also attest to COVID-19’s challenges — including one who’d been to hell and back serving in Somalia during the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993.

“I’d be sittin’ in the chair like this and go to get up and when I stood up it felt like somebody was, there was a bunch of pygmies down there beating on my legs with sledgehammers,” retired Army General Gary Harrell said. “Did not feel good.”

Harrell and his wife, Jennifer, both contracted COVID — Gary in late March and Jennifer most likely several days later. One of Harrell’s co-workers had a daughter who’d been on a cruise and that’s his best guess at where he picked up the virus.

Allen had been to New York City March 9-12 with friends from Birmingham, Ala., to celebrate a buddy’s 40th birthday.

“When I was there there were 100 cases in a city of nine million and so we were cautious, we washed our hands, we had hand sanitizer, we did all those things, but no one was really concerned about it,” Allen said.

Out of an abundance of caution and because tests were more readily available there, his Birmingham friends got tested when they returned. All were negative.

“I chose not to get tested for the simple fact that there weren’t many tests around, they all tested negative, it seemed logical that we all did everything together, so why waste a test on, you know, what should be a negative.”

Harrell’s testing scenario couldn’t have been different. Suffering flu-like symptoms, he went to his doctor March 28. A flu test came back negative and the doctor recommended a COVID test.

Harrell’s symptoms didn’t clear the testing bar at that point. The eternal optimist, who had his right femoral artery ripped open by a mortar shell in Somalia, also didn’t think he had the disease.

“The beginning was a dry cough. I noticed I was coughing but I didn’t think anything about it because I hadn’t been anywhere to be exposed.”

By April 1, though, Harrell was getting pretty sick. He was the last person to get a test that afternoon at East Tennessee State University’s drive through site.

“Friday (April 3) it came back positive,” Harrell said.

Then Jennifer Harrell starting feeling poorly. She was tested April 6 and learned she was positive April 8. Both the Harrells are over 65 and she has asthma. Jennifer won’t deny she was a bit concerned.

“It’s always in the back of your mind because you’ve heard so much on the news – it almost made it sound like everybody ended up in the hospital, like ‘oh my goodness, if you’re over 65 you’re gonna be in the hospital, you’re gonna be on a ventilator.’ It’s in the back of your mind a little bit. You watch for things.”

Neither of the Harrells ever felt like they were at risk of having to go the hospital, but that didn’t mean the virus was a walk in the park — even with the hydroxychloroquine Gary’s doctor put him on.

“It does come in waves, and both of us would wake up in the morning and we would think, ‘oh, I’m feelin’ better today, I’m gonna go do something, whatever,” Gary Harrell said. “As you start to do that, your energy level just kind of departs. It’s like draining a battery. And then you’re like uh, I think I’ll go lay down and take a little nap. I’ll feel better if I take a nap. And then it goes downhill from there.”

Jennifer Harrell’s case was milder. Thankfully, given her asthma, she never developed a cough. She did have a weird sensation in the backs of her legs that she described as akin to lots of pinpricks or little bee stings.

Apparently it’s common enough to have a name: fizzing.

“Several people have described it and someone came up with it and I thought, well that sounds like what I had.”

By the time the Harrells were recovering — and after what they said was wonderful support and food delivery from friends and church members — COVID-19 had infected Allen’s wife.

Their two young daughters never showed any symptoms. But Allen said his greatest blessing was learning that no work colleagues, or people they’d contacted, tested positive.

“We had self isolated. As soon as I didn’t feel well we locked the doors we had friends bring food. Everything and everything our friends took care of us which was phenomenal.”

Despite that self-isolation, Allen worried.

“I remember just laying in bed just thinking, ‘God, who did I accidentally give this to.’ And, that was my biggest concern really.”

No one, it turned out, at least as far as he knew.

“It was a great relief knowing  that other people didn’t have to go through what I went through, you know that I may have inadvertently given it to them.”

The Allens are fully recovered and he’s back at work.

“I felt really good that I did the right things, that I self isolated, that I made sure that really the only people that were gonna get it were my wife and kids, and she doesn’t let me forget that. It’s almost daily she brings it up. That’s ok. She’s healthy now and I’ll take that healthiness and a little ribbing any time.”

His advice to community members?

“Wearing a mask won’t ever hurt. So throw a mask on, what can it hurt. When this is all said and done we can laugh about it and say, ‘haha, we didn’t need to wear those,’ but why take the chance.

That includes him, even though he’s got antibodies.

“I’d rather give the perception that we should all be in masks, but again that’s my opinion, right? That’s the great thing about the United States that we all get to have our opinion we can stick to it. And that’s my opinion – put a mask on, what’s it going to hurt.”

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