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'The sickest I've been': 3 young people share what it's like to have COVID-19

Some young people think they're not at risk for severe coronavirus symptoms. Three young people dispel this myth with their own harrowing experiences.
Lukus Estok, 36, was hospitalized for several hours. His chest x-ray revealed fluid in his lungs and upper respiratory infection — both signs of coronavirus.
Lukus Estok, 36, was hospitalized for several hours. His chest x-ray revealed fluid in his lungs and upper respiratory infection — both signs of coronavirus.Lukus Estok

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By Maura Hohman

Public health officials have an important message for young people about the coronavirus outbreak: You can get seriously ill, too.

According to the first study of nearly 2,500 U.S. cases, 20% of hospitalized patients were between 20 and 44 years old, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday. While fatality rates were highest among individuals 85 and older, it’s a wake-up call for young adults continuing to gather in groups.

To stress that young people must practice social-distancing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, turned to a popular millennial news outlet, Barstool Sports.

“Don’t go out,” he told the outlet's podcast hosts on Wednesday. “Now, since you're now kind of isolating yourself in your own home, what about your roommates? … The recommendations say that the others in the house should take extra precautions … Washing hands carefully, don't go in big crowds.”

On Thursday, Kylie Jenner shared a similar message on her Instagram story.

“Hey guys. Happy self-quarantine!” she said. “Nobody is immune to this. Millennials are not immune to this. New evidence actually shows that a large percentage in the hospital right now are young adults.”

Numerous people in their 20s and 30s who say they’ve become severely ill have also taken up the social media torch. One of the first Tweets to gain traction was from 22-year-old Bjonda Haliti, who described her symptoms day by day: first, head pressure, then chills, fever, dry cough, nausea and shortness of breath.

“I want to share my experience especially with those around my age to help bring awareness, and to relieve any stress/anxiety some may have due to the pandemic,” she wrote.

Jonah Stillman, a 20-year-old author and owner of GenGuru.com, also tweeted his story.

Stillman told TODAY he started experiencing symptoms about 11 days ago.

“I had a tiny cough and sore throat,” he recalled.

Stillman, who lives in Excelsior, Minnesota, pushed for testing because he’d recently traveled internationally. After four days of self-quarantine, he got confirmation that he was sick with COVID-19.

“That night, I went from having what felt like a head cold to high fever, the worst body aches I’ve ever had,” he said. “It felt like I was in a horrible car accident almost. I couldn’t move … The simplest of tasks would wind me.”

He added, “It knocked me out, the sickest I’ve ever been.”

Ultimately, Stillman spoke out because as he struggled with his symptoms, he saw friends on Snapchat “out and about, on different trips, still on spring break, baffling things to me.”

“People are saying, ‘We can’t stop living,’ but we absolutely can stop living for the time being,” he said.

Another viral post on Instagram, came from 29-year-old Tarek Soliman who lives in New York City. He started to feel sick two weeks ago — “headaches, it wasn’t that serious,” he told TODAY. But by the next day, he felt “terrible. I had chills, body aches.”

The symptoms persisted for five more days, at which point he went to an urgent care center. During his visit, he fainted and was put in an ambulance. He stayed in the hospital for 10 hours.

Three days later, when he found out his coronavirus test was positive, his body aches and fever had worsened so much that he couldn’t move.

“The fever went away on the seventh or eighth day, but by then, the virus had extended to my lungs, and I started developing pneumonia,” he said. “There was fluid in my lungs, and I was coughing blood. It freaked me out. I’m still not healed.”

Soliman didn’t tell his story to incite more panic — just the opposite.

“I don’t want anyone to freak out …” he explained. “I wanted to tell everyone to be careful and stay home until this is over.”

A friend of Soliman’s, Lukus Estok, 36, received his positive test results for coronavirus on Thursday, March 19.

Almost two weeks ago, the New York City resident “started to feel like something was off,” he told TODAY. “My eyes were burning, and there was a moment where I found myself crawling up on the end of my bed.”

He had a fever of 100.6 degrees, which lasted for two days. He decided to go to urgent care.

"They said, ‘You need to go home. You need to rest. You need to isolate," he recalled.

Two days later, he developed a cough, and his fever shot up to 102.7 degrees. It stayed in this range for another week.

“[This past] Sunday morning when I woke up, I was having difficulty breathing,” he said. “The cough intensified. My chest was very tight. When I’d get up to walk or go to the bathroom, I’d get a little bit dizzy or very faint.”

He admitted himself to the hospital and stayed in an isolation room for five hours. His chest X-ray revealed fluid in the lungs and an upper respiratory infection, prompting doctors to say he likely had COVID-19.

Over the past few days, Estok’s symptoms have lessened, except for his cough, which he says is still “moderate to severe.”

He added, “I’ve never been sick like this before. I forgot what it felt like not to have a fever. A lot of people I’ve heard from aren’t taking this particularly seriously. I don’t think they appreciate how the symptoms feel. You don’t want this.”

Estok shared his experience on Facebook, compelling "a number of people reach out to saying, ‘This feels personal now, and it didn’t yesterday, so thank you,’” he said.

Estok’s goal? To provide clarity through his first-hand experience as it’s happening.

“It can be difficult for people to see something on TV from someone they don’t know having conversations about other people’s experiences,” he said. “But if it’s someone you can recognize, it might have an impact.”