When San Antonio Symphony principal clarinetist Stephanie Key recorded her part remotely for a video music ensemble piece with fellow Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, she had already been experiencing disturbing symptoms.

A close look at the video makes her ill state apparent, she said.“I look like hell.”

The day before, an inexplicable fatigue came over the longtime marathon runner, along with a 101.6 degree fever, and “stabbing pains” in her joints. She called her doctor, who recommended her for a coronavirus test at Freeman Coliseum.

She took the test March 27, the same day she recorded her clarinet part for the Enigma Variations video produced by trombonist Steve Peterson.

As her symptoms worsened, she said, she had a gut feeling. First she felt a “wave of heat. It just trickled up from my stomach and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got this thing.’” On March 31 the test came back positive for COVID-19.

When the nurse called, “she said the word [‘positive’] and I couldn’t believe it. It’s such an optimistic word for such a terrible thing,” Key said.

As a professional woodwind player and dedicated runner, she worried about the effect the virus would have on her lungs. Key feels fortunate she escaped the common symptoms of chest tightness and shortness of breath, and she has since returned to rehearsing and teaching clarinet.

How She Got It

Key traces her contraction of the virus back to a ski trip she and husband David Mollenauer, also a musician with the Symphony, took to Northern California March 9 through March 15. Exercising caution due to emergent news of the outbreak on the West Coast, she consulted her doctor, who advised that, given their athleticism and overall good health, the trip would be safe.

Key compared their ski clothes to wearing hazmat suits and said they could count on one hand the number of people they’d been exposed to during the trip. They mostly hunkered down in private accommodations, but one moment on a ski lift stood out.

In the gondola, Key sat across from a woman for the eight-minute ride up the slope. Two minutes into the ride, the woman coughed in her direction. “I was on the other side of it from her and [her] eyes got really big, like, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t have let that out,’” Key said, given the growing coronavirus awareness sweeping the country.

She can’t be sure whether that was the moment she contracted the virus. Many uncertainties prevailed then, including changing reports on symptoms to watch for. She remains unsure whether her asymptomatic husband has had the virus. By the time she received her positive test result days after being tested, her fever had subsided. Then, she lost her sense of smell and taste, which she realized when her husband served what should have been a flavorful grilled swordfish. “I couldn’t taste the food I just put in my mouth,” she said, then looked it up online and discovered it was a common symptom. Those senses returned after 11 days.

Person-to-Person Spread

Another family ski trip brought home at least two confirmed cases of coronavirus, with a possible total of 20 infected people.

Julio Zetina, age 53, and spouse Mariana Campos, age 47, both returned from an annual spring break ski vacation in Vail, Colorado, from March 6 to 14, along with their two daughters and 40 others among 11 families.

Both started feeling ill soon after returning home, experiencing symptoms common to COVID-19 along with 18 other adults who went on the trip. All consulted their various doctors, Zetina said, but only two were able to get tested. Both returned positive results.

Though like Key, none experienced symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization. Most started with fever, then chills and body aches. Bad headaches followed, with trouble sleeping and hallucinations, Zetina said. Some also had diarrhea, loss of appetite, dehydration, difficulty breathing, and loss of taste and smell. For all in the group, these symptoms lasted 10 to 15 days.

The Zetina family on vacation in Vail, Colorado. Credit: Courtesy / Zetina Family

Zetina said no one could be sure how they caught the virus, whether one person had it before the trip and exposed others, whether they were infected during their flights, at restaurants, on public transit in Vail, or at a hockey game the group attended. “We always followed the recommendations of government authorities that assured us that it was safe to travel,” Zetina said.

Members of the group self-quarantined for the recommended 14-day period, but they decided to remain cautious for a further week, and all have recovered.

The lesson Zetina and Campos learned is to be vigilant about not spreading the virus, whether symptomatic or not. “None of the children in our group experienced symptoms and two of the adults experienced very weak symptoms,” he said. He recommended isolating no matter what, if experiencing symptoms, to hydrate, get rest, and treat using over-the-counter medication.

“Getting tested is a personal decision, but I don’t recommend it unless symptoms are severe. Going to a clinic or hospital could even put others at risk,” Zetina said.

The family’s experience illustrated the potential that the number of confirmed cases undercounts the actual number of people carrying the virus in San Antonio. With Zetina and Campos as an example, only two of 20 probable cases would appear on official lists.

As of April 18, the City of San Antonio reported that 10,152 coronavirus tests had been administered in Bexar County, based on reports from the Metropolitan Health District and private laboratories. With a U.S. census population estimate of 2,003,554, that amounts to only 0.5 percent of the population knowing whether they have had the virus. Of those tested, 836, or 8.2 percent, have tested positive.

“The fact that such a small percentage of people have been tested indicates that we’re vastly underreporting it,” said Dr. Jan Evans Patterson, infectious disease specialist in the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.

Patterson said two factors complicate determinations on when to relax restrictions on economic and social activity. “It’s going to be critically important to us as we start reopening to be able to have readily available testing,” she said, and to make test results available more quickly than the current five-day waiting period.

“Even if we had 10 or 20 percent of the population tested, that would give us a much better idea” of how the virus is spreading or being contained, Patterson said.

‘Take This Seriously’

Key mostly treated herself with rest, hydration, and over-the-counter acetaminophen for headaches. She ate regular meals when she had an appetite and drank echinacea tea to bolster her immune system. She also sat outside when she could “and just watched the wind through the leaves on the trees,” which she said was helpful.

“I feel so guilty that I’ve come through this so cleanly and mildly,” she admitted, considering reports she’s read of widespread suffering and death all over the world. But she is grateful her symptoms were not worse and have not compromised her breathing, so essential to her career as a clarinetist and commitment to running.

In the brief respite after returning from her ski trip and before symptoms set in, Key stuck to her daily running schedule. She recalled an 8-mile marathon practice run along an otherwise abandoned Broadway, on what would normally have been a busy Saturday. She snapped a few smartphone photographs to record the eerie scene.

Now back running and with her own COVID-19 case behind her, Key offered advice to others. “Do not live in fear of this virus, but be sensible and take this seriously. … Do what the professionals – the trusted, experienced, knowledgeable ones – tell you to do. If you do this right, there will always be another game of golf, book club meeting, dinner with friends, another marathon,” she said.

Key personally knows of five other people who have suffered a range of symptoms and illness similar to hers. Only one among them has been tested.

Patterson reflected on the dangers of not testing more people for coronavirus. “We’re in a war with this thing.” she said. “So how can you fight a war if you don’t know where your enemy is?”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...