When Russell Donnelly lost his sense of taste and smell just as he tested positive for COVID-19, his friends didn’t believe he could no longer detect any hint of sour, bitter or spicy flavor in food.
So the 30-year-old bartender from Jersey City, New Jersey, set out to prove them wrong. He recorded himself munching on a raw red onion, washing it down with a shot of lemon juice and then eating a spoonful of garlic paste for dessert.
“Nothing,” he said after tasting each item. “This is a crazy virus.”
The video has been viewed almost 18 million times on TikTok, so Donnelly has kept eating, drinking and recording. The food and beverage choices have included a shot of vinegar, a bite of lemon, Oreos stuffed with wasabi, mustard straight from the bottle, anchovies and raw garlic.
It’s become a pungent video series for Donnelly, who has been self-isolating at home since testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 5, he said.
“I'm lucky that no other symptoms came up,” he told TODAY. “I felt completely fine throughout the entire process. Never felt sick at all. I just lost my sense of taste and smell.”
Donnelly didn’t know where he caught the coronavirus, but noted he worked in a bar where he always wore a mask but dealt with “a lot of people in and out — drunk people who don't wear their masks all the time.” He also plays in a recreational soccer league, which is another possible place where he could have been exposed.
The loss of smell or taste has emerged as a common early symptom in patients with mild cases of COVID-19. Doctors say those senses are closely linked together and can be affected by inflammation in the upper airway.
Some experts also believe the virus may infect "support cells" in the nose, or cells that help sensory neurons function properly.
Everything Donnelly now eats tastes neutral, he said, so biting into an onion feels a bit like eating juicy, crunchy cardboard. He does still feel his sinuses being affected — when eating wasabi, for example — “but literally no sense of taste on the taste buds. It's like someone just turned the switch off,” he noted.
“It just took all of the joy out of eating a meal, which is pretty sad. But I just start exploring textures — I've eaten a lot more chips than I would have in the past just because I enjoyed eating crunchy things,” he said.
Despite consuming a wild combination of foods for the enjoyment of his viewers, Donnelly said he hasn’t had any stomach issues. The aspiring actor intends to make more videos for his fans and has been taking dares from his friends, with one of them bringing him fermented shrimp paste, chicken gizzards and chicken feet to try next.
Donnelly’s taste and smell are starting to slowly come back, he noted. Most COVID-19 survivors are back to normal within several weeks, but there have been reports that some experience a prolonged loss of senses, which have made him nervous. Some people notice substantial changes to previously familiar odors and flavors, if their taste and smell come back at all.
After almost two weeks of self-isolating, Donnelly is now waiting for the results of his latest COVID-19 test to find out whether he can start leaving home again and enjoy his new-found fame.
“I'm hoping I can transition it into something other than eating gross food on the internet,” he said.
“But if that's what the people want, I guess I'll give the people what they want, too. So even if my sense of taste and smell comes back 100%, I'm probably just going to keep eating gross stuff.”