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In early March, before medical and infectious disease experts were fully aware of the havoc the novel coronavirus was already wreaking in New York City — what would soon become the nation’s epicenter of COVID-19 — Dr. Jake Deutsch was ailed by a low-grade fever, body aches, and general malaise.
Already treating dozens of patients with “flu-like” symptoms at Cure Urgent Care, a walk-in clinic that he founded, Deutsch was suspicious he may have been exposed to the novel virus that was making headlines in the U.S. and beyond, as his patients were testing negative for the flu. At the time, however, there was no way to know for sure.
When diagnostic testing became more available, and when his symptoms failed to improve, Deutsch chose to administer himself a test, ultimately confirming his suspicions: He was positive for COVID-19.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Deutsch told Fox News of the results. “I remember thinking I kind of wanted to get it over with so I could get back out there [and treat patients].”
For Deutsch, who said he exercises six days a week and has no underlying health conditions, the virus was more of an annoyance, preventing him from helping those truly in need. But after a week of no relief, “I hit a wall,” he recalled.
Seeking advice from his father-in-law, an infectious disease specialist, Deutsch checked himself into Mount Sinai Hospital when he began to suffer from respiratory complications he felt needed medical attention. And he was right: A chest X-ray confirmed he had pneumonia in both of his lungs, considered to be a serious complication of COVID-19.
After consulting with Mt. Sinai doctors, and having read up on the limited literature on potential treatments for the novel virus, Deutsch said he began hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that hit the market in the mid-1950s and has since become a common treatment option for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients.
The drug recently made headlines when it was touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19, but the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine has been a source of debate within the medical community, with some warning it’s too soon to know if it’s an efficacious option in treating patients with the novel virus.
Theoretically, the drug, with its ability to quiet an immune system response, could help prevent a COVID-19 infected person’s immune system from going into overdrive, attacking the virus so vigorously that it ultimately causes organ failure and death, as has occurred in some patients. Though preliminary studies have shown the drug protects lab-grown cells from the virus, researchers are now working to better understand hydroxychloroquine and its possible effectiveness in treating COVID-19 patients in human clinical trials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Deutsch said his symptoms began to improve a few days later. But, he cautioned: “People have to understand that it should be used in consultation with your doctor. We want to make sure there is enough supply for people who need it,” he said.
(It’s worth noting there have already been shortages of the drug, namely affecting lupus patients who depend on it to live comfortably.)
Though he was beginning to feel a bit more like his old self, the same was not true for Deutsch’s father, who he said was diagnosed with the virus around the same time he was. His father was intubated at one point, suffering complications as an insulin-dependent diabetic and previous smoker.
“As a physician, you know too much,” Deutsch said. “My mind is always thinking about the worst-case scenario. I was under a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety, constantly checking my temperature. The pain in my chest that was unnerving, as was the shortness of breath, severe fatigue and malaise,” he said, adding his stress was exacerbated by worrying about his father, who lives in a different state.
The symptoms he experienced were “way more serious” than he ever thought they would be, he said.
“Luckily, I recovered, although it was a much more severe illness than I anticipated,” he said.
Deutsch said his father, who was also treated with hydroxychloroquine, is also seeing improvement and is no longer on a ventilator.
Overall, the experience has made him more empathic when treating COVID-19 patients, he said, estimating that in recent weeks, he and his colleagues at Cure Urgent Care have seen between 100 to 120 patients a day.
“We’re testing everyone who needs it. Since we started testing in early March, we’ve administered close to 2,000 tests, and some 60 percent [of patients] have tested positive,” said Deutsch.
“When we tell patients they’re positive, people are still surprised because their symptoms are [often] minor to moderate. They can’t wrap their head around the fact that’s what it can look like,” he said. “When you see the most extreme cases in the media, that’s what people expect for themselves.”
Currently, especially in the overwhelmed health care system of New York City, physicians around the country are “practicing medicine in uncharted territories.”
But there is a small silver lining, at least from his perspective.
“Having had bad illness myself, when I see patients now, I can really understand what it feels like; I can empathize on a different level,” he said.