When radio personality Jessica Williams hit the shower one morning in July and suddenly realized she could not smell her soap, she knew it was a bad sign.

‘Ms. Jessica,’ also known to fans of Charlotte’s WPEG Power 98 FM as “The Girl Next Door,” would soon learn she’d contracted COVID-19.

She’d already talked on air several times with Novant Health’s Dr. Jerome Williams Jr.  about COVID-19, a disease that has hit the Black community disproportionately hard. So he was the first person she called when she noticed symptoms. 

Jessica Williams, no relation to Dr. Williams, quarantined for 14 days while continuing to co-host “Morning Maddhouse” from home. Now that she’s recovered, she’s educating others. With 35,000 followers on her personal Instagram (@heymsjessica) account, she has the power to impact a lot of people. She’s been using her platforms to encourage masking and getting testing at the first sign of symptoms.   

She and Williams, senior vice president of consumer engagement and a cardiologist who still sees patients weekly, spoke about her case in a discussion you can hear on a Novant Health three-part podcast. Learn how you can protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Highlights, edited for brevity and clarity, are below.

Early warning signs

Ms. Jessica: Step one is prevention. But if you get COVID-19, don’t waste time. Don’t wait for symptoms to build up, then go get your test and wait for results. Move quickly. Get tested and quarantine.

When my first symptom showed up on a Wednesday, I immediately got tested. If I hadn’t quarantined, I would have been out between Wednesday and Sunday. There’s no telling how many people I could’ve passed the virus to. Getting a test needs to be done quickly, and quarantining has to happen right away. That’s the message that’s heavy on me that I want to share. As an expert, what do you want to share?

Williams_Jerome_Head_Web
Dr. Jerome Williams

Dr. Jerome Williams: People need to know how you catch COVID-19 – usually through close contact, respiratory droplets, shaking somebody’s hand and then touching your face. Take it seriously. Jessica, you’re a great example. You caught the disease and quarantined early. You practiced physical distancing and you masked indoors. Lastly, don’t be ashamed if you get COVID. It’s OK to talk about it. We should be talking about it.

 Came on quickly

Ms. Jessica: I woke up one morning – at about 3 a.m. and my first day back in the studio after working from home since April  – and I hopped in the shower and realized immediately I couldn’t smell my soap. I am a scent girl. I keep candles, lotions, shower gels. I spray lavender on my pillows at night. The fact that I couldn’t smell my soap was like, “Oh, hold on.” I got out of the shower, went to my kitchen and realized I couldn’t taste my Gummi Bears and immediately woke my boyfriend up and said, “I cannot smell or taste.”

I was feeling a little achy but chalked it up to my body getting used to waking up so early. But I didn’t want to risk it. I called (the station) and told them I’d broadcast from home. The show starts at 5:50 a.m. We end at 10 a.m. By then, I literally had my head down on my kitchen table. I was sick – headache, chills, fever, sore throat, fatigue, body aches. I felt horrible. I got in bed and I went to sleep. The next day, I immediately got tested and spent Fourth of July weekend in my house. When I realized this might be COVID, I didn’t leave home. (NOTE: Jessica quarantined in a separate part of the house from her boyfriend. They were hyper-vigilant about cleaning and wearing masks – even inside. Her boyfriend never got COVID-19.)

If you have symptoms

Dr. Williams: You stayed home, Jessica. You said: Something isn’t right here. That was huge. Think of the potential exposure to others. You really helped the community. The vast majority of individuals who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic. They have no symptoms. But they can still pass the virus to someone else.

How to quarantine 

Dr. Williams: First and foremost, everybody in the household should put a mask on. Symptomatic or asymptomatic, put a mask on. If one person in the household tests positive, it’s best to isolate that individual, if possible, including separate bathrooms Quarantine in separate quarters for at least 14 days and maybe longer if symptoms are still persisting.

Not everybody has the ability to physical distance in their household, though. So, it’s vitally important that everyone wear a mask. Disinfect common areas – refrigerator handles, the sink, bathrooms, common areas, door knobs, remote controls – throughout the day.

Testing

Dr. Williams: If you have signs of COVID-19 – fever, muscle aches, shortness of breath, cough – get tested. If you’re around somebody who’s either COVID-19 positive and/or has symptoms, get tested.

There’s no mandate to be tested after you get COVID, have quarantined and begin to feel better. We test our front-line workers who've been exposed to or had COVID because we want to make sure there’s no opportunity for them to spread COVID. But for the layperson, there’s no need to get tested a second time, especially if symptoms are gone.

What if you get sick?

Dr. Jerome Williams: If you have fever, take Tylenol, Motrin or ibuprofen. That will help with muscle aches. Stay hydrated – with water, I mean. No alcohol.  

If you can work from home while you’re sick, great. Some individuals with COVID-19 don’t have the energy to get out of bed. It’s OK to sleep all day. Some people may have significant shortness of breath. If they try to walk across the hallway or walk across the kitchen, they’re terribly out of breath. They shouldn’t engage in any activity. And there are others who feel great. But the key is to quarantine.

Lingering effects of COVID-19

Ms. Jessica: I quarantined for the full 14 days. For probably 10 of those days, I was really sick. Can’t-get-out-of-bed sick. I had a fever, chills, exhaustion, diarrhea, and a bad sore throat. I never had breathing problems or the COVID cough.

I was so excited to get back out that I think I jumped into recovery too quickly. I realized I didn’t need to push myself that hard. Now, I’m back to my regular energy levels. My taste and smell are back – but not fully. I still find myself, if I really want to smell something, having to take a deep breath to smell it.

Immunity

Dr. Williams: When someone has immunity to a virus – any virus – they’ve either been exposed or had a vaccine, developed antibodies and those antibodies are in their memory immune system. If they get exposed again, those antibodies are produced and protect against reinfection.

With COVID, we’re still trying to understand what level of antibody is needed to confer immunity. Also, how long does immunity last? And another big question: Can you get COVID-19 after you’ve been exposed once? Data would suggest it’s unlikely, but we can’t say for sure until more studies are published.

Dr. Jerome  William with Carl Armato
Dr. Jerome Williams with Carl S. Armato, president and CEO of Novant Health.

Stay connected

Dr. Williams:  It’s healthy – physically and mentally – to maintain social connections. And there are safe ways of doing that. It’s called physical distancing. Notice: I didn’t say social distancing. We want social interaction but we also want physical distancing.

Mental health  

Ms. Jessica: I told people that the outpouring of love I received, even from people I never met, was just as important as Tylenol. The support was medicine, and that’s so important. And for my mental health, I made a lot of calls and FaceTimed people.

Dr. Williams: That’s a real big shout-out you just slipped in for mental health. There’s a lot of stress now. You have individuals unable to work. You have essential workers on the front line, and that’s causing a lot of emotional challenges. You have individuals at home all the time with young children, homeschooling, as well as working from home and parenting.

And I encourage everyone to seek resources. If you go to Novant Health COVID-19 website, there are  resources for mental health (and lots of other information). It’s real. It’s important. I’m here to tell you, it affects all of us.

Do your part

Dr. Williams: We have to look at health as a shared value. If you’re (in public) and you’re infected and coughing and sneezing, you’re really affecting not just those around you, but their family members, their community, etc.

Physical distancing is sometimes challenging, but a mask is cheap and effective. And can you can find them anywhere.

Teenagers, young folks – take this seriously. If you catch COVID-19 and bring it home to your parents, your grandparents – they’re the ones usually hospitalized on ventilators and need prolonged care. And young folks can easily transmit to them.

Take it from someone who’s been there

Ms. Jessica: COVID-19 looks different on everybody. If you have even one of the symptoms, get tested and self-quarantine. And share your story. It could help someone else. Let people know that the earlier you address symptoms and the earlier you get tested, the better for all of us.

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