“Food tastes like cardboard”: Ukrainian shares her coronavirus experience in LA

Evgenia Kornienko, a 28-year-old Ukrainian designer, lives in Los Angeles and works in the American startup Brainbase (having moved there from DollarShaveClub). In March, she and her boyfriend went through the coronavirus disease. In her interview with AIN.UA, Evgenia discusses her illness and the quarantine’s effect on startups and businesses in the region.

How did you know you were ill? What symptoms did you have?

When we had all this quarantine buzz already starting, I was still going out to work; the last time I was there was around March 11.

The quarantine was to be officially imposed on March 16, and since March 13 we were staying at home. My boyfriend started developing the first symptoms on that very day. At first, there was a nagging pain in his muscles.

I remember myself teasing him, like, look how worrisome you are: everyone around is hysterical, so you begin thinking you have symptoms right away. I was very skeptical about the gravity of the virus at first and thought they were just making a lot of fuss out of nothing. It turned out I was grossly mistaken.

In a couple of days, he ran a slight temperature, 38.5 ℃, developing severe chills and lethargy. And in as much as 5 days after his initial symptoms, I was down too.

Had you traveled somewhere with him just before that? To China, maybe?

No. Except for Kansas, perhaps, which we visited on Christmas last time. In general, although I was skeptical, I was extremely cautious. We took all the precautions, bought a couple of hand sanitizers, and didn’t go outside unless necessary.

Our social circle is small, no one among our friends had traveled in the last couple of months. In fact, we had just visited the grocery store and seen our friends a couple of times before the full self-isolation.

It remains a mystery for me, how come we got infected just having gone to the supermarket and seen a couple of friends before the lockdown. And that without anyone from our immediate circle having any symptoms – it’s just us who distinguished ourselves.

When did you get tested, and what was the treatment?

I developed all the symptoms on the list: muscle ache, sore tendons, dry cough, which I never have, even with flu, the temperature of up to 38.9 ℃, terrible chills, and extreme headache. Not wanting to face the reality of the situation, I was still blaming any viral infection whatsoever.

On the third day after the first symptoms, I lost my senses of taste and smell altogether. As if someone just turned off the switch. I poked my nose into a bottle of vinegar and felt nothing. Whatever food I took, it was all like chewing on a piece of cardboard. I was disinfecting the toilet and the sinks with bleach – and still nothing, absolutely no smell.

We were keeping in contact with our doctor from the point my boyfriend developed initial symptoms. We’d got a subscription with the private clinic One Medical – you pay $200 per year and forget that healthcare in the USA is slow and inconvenient. You can see a doctor pretty much the same day, they have 24/7 online support, and you can contact the doctor by video call. I should make it clear that our work insurance covers all the clinics – we just pay extra for having quick access to doctors without waiting in line for two or three weeks.

My young man began finding out how we can get tested. The doctor said that, as long as we had no clear symptoms and it could be just a cold, we were not eligible for testing because at that time it was still prohibited to test people without critical symptoms. I think it was due to the limited number of tests available. As far as I know, now the situation has improved, and you can be tested even if you have mild symptoms.

Not dying? Stay home and don’t freak out. After a couple of days, when we reported the new symptom: the loss of taste and smell, literally on the same day another patient with the same symptom got a positive test result in our clinic. That’s how we got the “coveted test invitation.”

I won’t tell you much about the test, I’ll just leave this picture here. They do a nasal swab: shove a meter-long stick into your nose and twist it while you cough, sneeze, and wail with your head bent back.

The results came in five days (now they would have them within 24 hours). We received a text message via our medical app: your results are positive.

Weren’t you frightened a lot? Didn’t you panic?

No. While we were waiting for the test, it was already clear that we had caught the infection; plus, we were tested on March 22, the results came on the 27th, and my symptoms were already running their course. Of all the sickness time, for 2 or 3 days I felt really bad: hazy head, high temperature; I just lay down on the sofa, curled up, and wouldn’t even speak to my boyfriend. It felt like severe queasiness with a fever and constant migraines.

Along with the test result, doctors prescribed me symptomatic treatment. I was supposed to take an analgesic/antipyretic, which in our case was Tylenol. Rumor has it that you can’t take Ibuprofen. It is not fact-checked, but still, we wanted to be on the safe side.

This is now my fourth week of sickness. In the third week, I began having chest pains; the doctors told me to wait and see how my condition develops. If it felt too bad, I was supposed to call an ambulance. The core symptoms were gone, the taste was about 60 percent back. I still have a slight cough, but I feel that I’ve recovered almost completely. Now I answer to those asking about my health: it’s good that I had a corona light case.

Were you and your boyfriend told to recover at home? Did they demand lockdown, did they control it?

Yes, we’ve been taking care of ourselves at home.

As for the second question, I was really surprised, but at that moment I had a feeling that doctors couldn’t care less about the progression of mild cases. No complaints – alright then. We received a message saying the test is positive, stay home, don’t go anywhere; if you have to go somewhere, wear a mask. If it becomes difficult to breathe, or if you feel lightheaded when you get up, or you faint – call 911. That’s all.

After the test, they contacted us just once. My boyfriend got a call from LA Health Department; he was asked 3 or 4 questions: how he felt, had we traveled, where, in our thinking, we could have caught the infection, questions about self-isolation, our temperature.

The Center for Disease Control’s official website says you can stop self-isolating if all three of the following conditions are present:

  • you have had no fever for three days;
  • other symptoms are gone or improving;
  • 7 days have passed since you had the first symptoms.

We didn’t do a second test.

But I was quite amazed to see that no one monitored whether we maintained isolation, how we felt. You never know, maybe, during the three weeks, we would kick the bucket.

Do you have quarantine already imposed? What are the current rules?

Yes. Here just essential businesses, groceries, laundries, and gas stations remain open. Liquor and marijuana stores are open too. Restaurants have turned to takeout only, and you must book in advance.

All other shops are closed; many restaurants and stores downtown have boarded up their windows to avoid looting. All office workers have been switched to telework. Actually, the construction across the street from us is still going on, but everyone wears masks there.

Our mayor has announced that since April 10 it would be impossible to enter a store without a facial mask/bandana. I conveniently forgot about it and were driven out of a grocery store. I had to run back to the car and tie a scarf to cover my nose. In some cities of Los Angeles, they even introduced 1000-dollar fines for non-compliance.

Do you have any movement restrictions? In Ukraine, for example, just 2 people can go outside together, we should wear masks, and carry a passport along.

In Ukraine, the government has brought it to the point of absurdity, as always. This is complete idiocy. We have milder measures: gatherings of more than five people are prohibited, and you should cover your face with a mask or bandana. When the weather is fine, we have whole crowds walking the streets here. But everyone keeps the distance.

The other day, for the first time in weeks we got out for a ride; we wanted to cycle down to the ocean. We took a bicycle trail to the beaches, along the river, reached the shore, and saw a sign saying that even the beach trails were closed. It seems it had been hard for them to control the flow of people.

As of now, all the beaches, parks, trails are closed. You can sneak to a beach, but the idea of getting a $1,000 fine doesn’t amuse me.

What about your hospitals? Do they have enough medications and equipment?

A nurse whom I know, complains that they are short on masks, that medics are very poorly protected.

We had some a dozen N95 masks we had bought them back when there were massive fires here. I posted on Facebook that I would give them away to the hospital. A nurse I knew answered my post, came to our place and picked them up from our garage. So, even if remotely, I’ve made my contribution.

I talked to a couple of nurses, and it seems like we’re not even close to providing our healthcare staff with the protection to the level they did in China or Italy. One would say medical workers can just put a plastic bag over their heads, and that would be all the protection.

I think the country was just not ready for such kind of things. Everybody thought until the last moment that it wouldn’t affect us. Everyone was taken by surprise; no one thought we would need such an amount of equipment and personal protection for doctors.

And, of course, “thank you” Trump for keeping our airspace open until the last moment, for not buying enough tests. Fearing that the economy might collapse, he said that everybody should get back to work after Easter.

But the situation is gradually improving: now local authorities begin to take measures on their level. The mayor of Los Angeles said we would stay home for at least another two months.

Are there any local initiatives appearing to support the healthcare workers and local businesses, to buy in equipment?

We try to donate money to those who need it, support local business, order food for takeout from small local restaurants and groceries from local farmers. I plan to begin to volunteer, buying food for people from high-risk groups.

Businesses try to be responsible; for example, from 7 to 8 am our grocery stores are open for old people only and would let no one else in.

Locally, people do much more than the government. You know, there is a weird feeling that people stand together and try to get out of the shit creek with a combined effort, without the state’s help. There is hope for the future.

How have the quarantine and the crisis affected the startup you work for? How do companies in Los Angeles feel in general?

My circle of contacts is mainly developers and designers – it hasn’t changed much for them.

I currently work in a small b2b startup called Brainbase; we make software for people involved in intellectual property and licensing.

In our company little has changed: we could work from home before. There were no salary cuts. Of course, we feel the lack of contact with colleagues. It’s difficult to make oneself get out of the pajamas, so we often conduct morning calls with our cameras turned off.

Quarantine has a strong relaxing effect; I haven’t worked from home this much since long ago.

A lot of my friends were laid off, many had their salaries cut. My boyfriend’s ex-roommate got his pay reduced by 15%, but at least he kept his job. My acquaintance’s fiancée had a work placement as a nurse in a private clinic – she was laid off. They kept just the ambulance stations in that hospital and fired the rest.

Starbucks closed all and everything but is still paying the employees. DollarShaveClub sent its employees to work from home, but there were no layoffs, as far as I know; on the contrary, the business is flourishing now, because people don’t want to go shopping and use the subscription and delivery services instead.

But outside startups the situation is quite sad. According to official data, 17 million applied for unemployment benefits during the last month.

San Francisco was famous for its exorbitant rent. How high are the prices in LA, and have they changed due to the quarantine?

The scare stories about rents in San Francisco are all true. When I lived there back in 2014, I paid $2,000 a month for a room with shared facilities.

In LA rents are not as high, rates in many areas have now dropped, and you can rent a flat on Airbnb at rock-bottom prices. Next week I want to find a small cottage in the desert, grab the dog and the boyfriend, and spend a week or so in another atmosphere.

They have also introduced rent freeze here: if you can’t pay your bills, by law they cannot make you move out until the isolation regime is lifted. But you still have to pay the rent afterward.

What is the public sentiment? Panic, hysteria, or people just bide their time until everything is over?

I would say I feel no panic as such. It was funny to see the shelves with toilet paper and flour completely empty.

Many people were cramming 3 or 4 huge packs into their carts, and there are videos on YouTube with people fighting for toilet paper. Firstly, diarrhea is a rare symptom, and secondly, since when Americans have been baking anything?

Some people go nuts because of the isolation; our friends ask for an invitation to see us. A couple of friends visited us while we were still well: they stayed inside their car, and we sat on the lawn by the house, five meters from them. And we had a conversation in such a manner.

Our friends and us call each other in the evenings and have a “bar crawl at home.” Yesterday we had a “corona barbecue” with two guys who have also recovered already.

In general, people take the situation calmly, keep to their homes. We’ll just wait and see until the death rates go down. I wish people would take the topic more seriously because I’m sure no one wants to cause anyone’s tragedy.