A year later, Washington region’s first coronavirus patient recounts trauma of her role in history

Bonnie Lippe faced scorn from strangers for being ‘patient zero’        …

A year later, Washington region's first coronavirus patient recounts trauma of her role in history 1

A year later, Washington region's first coronavirus patient recounts trauma of her role in history 2

A year later, Washington region's first coronavirus patient recounts trauma of her role in history 3

Antonio Olivo
 |  Washington Post

A year ago this weekend, Bonnie Lippe picked up the telephone and broke down – again and again.

One by one, she called family members and friends, asking them to watch out for symptoms of the deadly coronavirus because she might have exposed them.

Lippe was the Washington region’s first known case. Or, as she put it half-jokingly, “patient zero.”

Looking back, after the region hit more than 1 million cases, Lippe, 56, marvels at the raw intensity of those early days – the fear of leaving her Maryland home, the scorn that greeted her and the nagging feeling that life would never again be the same.

“No. I can’t believe it’s been a year,” said Lippe, who now lives in a suburb of Las Vegas with her husband, Michael. “It’s unbelievable that we’re still in this situation.”

Lippe’s diagnosis on March 5, 2020 – followed shortly by confirmation that a Bethesda, Md. couple she’d never met had also tested positive – was a watershed moment, the beginning of the pandemic’s arc through the state.

Before Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the virus had made it into Montgomery County, the outbreak that was largely confined to China was still a remote threat to the region. Soon after came the mask mandates, the shutdown restrictions in Maryland, Virginia and the District that shuttered businesses and schools and upended normal life, the dissolved jobs and the searing pain of lost lives.

For Lippe, it was the start of a maddening new reality that unfolded when she returned home from a two-week Nile River cruise in Egypt.

By then, the stomachache and low-grade fever she had experienced during the trip had subsided; she and her fellow travelers who also became ill attributed their discomfort to something they ate or drank.

But one symptom stood out as particularly odd: Lippe couldn’t understand why she had lost her sense of taste and smell. Still, she went about her life, visiting her elderly parents and some friends, and attending a crowded Jewish shiva gathering at the retirement community in Rockville where a recently deceased friend lived.

Then, on March 3, she got a call from a man who said he was with the Maryland Department of Health. He told Lippe that she had probably been exposed to the coronavirus.

“I thought it was a scam,” said Lippe, who back then knew only vaguely about the virus. “But I couldn’t figure out how they were trying to monetize it. I kept waiting for the guy to say, ‘And if you send us this amount of money or give us your credit card . . .’ “

The health department worker told Lippe she could get tested for the virus at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. When she arrived, the nurse administering the test apologized for wearing gloves and a mask.

Two days later, two state health department supervisors called Lippe with the result. Positive.

“Well, what do we do now?'” she recalled asking. “And they said: ‘We don’t really know. You’re the first one.’ “

The following days were a blur.

Horrified by the thought that she might have unknowingly infected her family and friends, Lippe said she took it upon herself to inform them, even though health officials said they would do that. The hardest call was to the family of the former Rockville retirement community resident who recently died.

The still-grieving family was understanding. But Lippe stumbled over her words, stopping and starting again between tears while she suggested that they watch out for symptoms that could kill them.

“That whole conversation, I don’t even remember all of it,” Lippe said. “I know I had my husband on the other line, and at some point in the conversation I would just hang up the phone and my husband would say: ‘Just wait. Let me go get her,’ and talk me back off the ledge.”

She didn’t infect anybody that she knows of, including her husband, who didn’t go with her to Egypt.

After her diagnosis, Lippe no longer left her home, especially during the day. Walking the family dog meant a trip around her property, at night and with a mask on.

Strangers on social media were nonetheless vicious, blaming Lippe and others who had brought home infections from trips for ushering death and disease into the region.

Against her better judgment, she became obsessed with what people said about her online, checking every hour she was awake.

“The cockroaches have come out,” one post said. “They don’t care about anyone else.”

Her anxiety got so bad that when a friend called to check in, Lippe verbally attacked her, remembering that the friend’s husband was a TV news broadcaster.

“You just want the story for your husband!” Lippe said to her friend, who continued to call and ask about her well-being in genuine concern.

“She was such a dear friend and I was so awful,” Lippe said. “It probably took me a month until I apologized to her. Until I was back to being myself.”

She began helping other people who had the virus, volunteering in late April to be a peer counselor as part of a pilot program created by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Maryland and the state health department to help recently recovered covid-19 patients navigate their lingering trauma.

In August, Lippe and her husband moved to Las Vegas, where nobody knew about her diagnosis. It felt like a liberation.

But she continued the virtual counseling sessions through what is now known as CovidConnect. From that vantage point, she saw how the knots of anxiety over a coronavirus diagnosis loosened over time, even as the region’s numbers of new infections skyrocketed during the winter holidays.

In the beginning, the former patients who participated in the NAMI sessions shared tearful stories about how frightened they were and how death had seemed so certain.

“The experiences that these people went through,” Lippe said. “The aloneness. Coming in to the hospital through the basement and everybody moving out of your way.”

Today, she said, the stories are more about the stigmatization that comes with telling people they’ve been infected – where the typical response is “How’d you get it?” as if they did something wrong.

On Friday, Hogan planned to commemorate Maryland’s first case by declaring a day of remembrance for the more than 7,700 Maryland residents who have died of covid-19 so far. A twilight ceremony will be held at the State House in Annapolis and, as the sun sets, government buildings across the state will be lit up in amber.

“One year ago at this time, we could not have fathomed the toll that the pandemic would take on each and every one of us,” Hogan said in a statement, saluting the dead and giving thanks to “the health care heroes and front line workers whose many sacrifices have saved lives and kept us safe.”

Lippe is unsure how she feels about such grand gestures.

With vaccinations picking up pace, she is eager to move back into normalcy. But, she said, “I don’t know if I’m going to be comfortable going to a grocery store without a mask on, ever, or not the near future.”


She and her husband are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine. So, she continues to wear her mask, quietly taking note of those who don’t. She’s less anxious about the virus, but worried that others will forget that it can still burn through their lives.

“Numbers are going up again,” she said about a recent surge of infections in Nevada. “That’s what scares me. The vaccine is coming, but it’s not here for everybody yet. Don’t relax.”

As for her, she said: “I’m just patiently sitting in my house, with my mask on, waiting until I qualify.”

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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