Friday the 13th now holds a new meaning for Diana Berrent, who woke up that day in March with a 102-degree fever and the feeling like an “anvil” was lying on her chest.
“There was nothing subtle about it,” she told HuffPost last week.
The 45-year-old photographer and self-proclaimed “news junkie” had begun canceling nonessential appointments starting in February due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. After attending a meeting with eight other people in early March, during which there was “no physical contact,” she developed what she believed were symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. When she attended that same meeting a week later, this time digitally via Zoom, and learned others were sick too, she was even more convinced.
“It feels like a lifetime ago but it was only three weeks ago,” said Berrent, who lives in Nassau County, New York. “Schools and businesses were still open at that point. I had just recently photographed an event at a local elementary school in a gymnasium that was packed with children and their families moving around in close quarters. I was terrified that I had infected people along the way without knowing, and I was desperate to get tested. Not because I need to know for my personal education, but at that point, I felt I had a moral and civic duty to warn my community and I couldn’t report it to the school district unless I had a positive diagnosis. I was hellbent on getting a test for reporting reasons.”
Berrent’s experience trying to get tested was challenging, to say the least. She was initially refused a test because she had not visited China or Italy during the previous 30 days, nor could she prove she had “10 minutes of close sustained contact with someone who had tested positive.”
“At that point, there were only a handful of people in Nassau County who had tested positive,” she said. “And none of the identities of those people had been released. Nassau County is a really big place. It’s like saying someone else in Upper Manhattan has it. How could I possibly prove I had exposure to someone who has it if you’re not testing anybody?” (The county has over 1 million people and lies just east of New York City.)
Feeling helpless, Berrent took her dilemma to her town and county representatives, sending a letter detailing her symptoms and her struggle to get a test. She posted the same letter to her Facebook page in an effort to draw attention to the lack of available testing.
The letter quickly went viral ― “all puns intended,” Berrent said.
The letter got the attention of her congressman, Rep. Tom Suozzi, who ultimately assisted in her getting a test, which came back positive.
“You know, [my experience is] not really a scalable solution for the world,” she said, but it left her feeling hopeful that in sharing the results, she might at least help mitigate the spread of the virus in her community.
Berrent spent the following days quarantined at home, recovering from the virus and sharing her journey through vlogs and columns for the New York Post. During that time, she had an idea.
“I started to think that if this virus acts like any other virus and I can develop some sort of immunity to it at the end [of my recovery], I could go volunteer on the front lines without protective gear,” she said. “What if we gathered all of the other people [who have survived the coronavirus] to do that?”
When she saw an email circulating from New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital looking for volunteer survivors to donate blood and plasma, her focus shifted.
“It occurred to me that this is the most inefficient way of finding and matching up people with the research institutes,” she said. “We don’t have time on our hands, people are dying, and if the answers to this virus lie in the bodies of survivors, we need to create a platform to efficiently match survivors to research institutes so they can get direct access to us and we can create an expediency to the process.”
Thus, Survivor Corps, a Facebook group started by Berrent, was born. The group currently has over 20,000 members.
“I realized if I was going to be one of the first people to get diagnosed with COVID-19 in my area, in all likelihood, if I was lucky, I was also going to be one of the first survivors,” she said, adding, “And with that came a responsibility and an opportunity.”
On March 30, Berrent visited Columbia University Irving Medical Center and became its first volunteer to be screened to donate antibodies that may help treat and save the lives of others.
Survivor Corps’ current mission is to find and report on research, screening and donation opportunities for survivors, as well as to connect those in need with people who can help. A regularly updated list of ways to participate in research studies is pinned at the top of the group’s Facebook page.
The group’s longer-term goal is to keep people informed on scientific developments surrounding immunity so that those who have recovered from COVID-19 can give back by donating their blood and plasma and by volunteering.
Many scientists do predict that people who have recovered from COVID-19 will emerge with some degree of immunity ― although to what extent and for how long is not yet clear.
“Of course, we don’t know how long that immunity will last,” Berrent said. “Is it like the chickenpox? Or is it more like the flu?”
Still, she is confident in the research thus far.
“There’s no reason why those people, once they test negative for the virus and positive for the antibodies, can’t be volunteering on the front lines without being a drain on protective gear,” she said. “We can hold the hands of the dying who are in hospitals without loved ones. We can cheer on women in childbirth who are laboring on their own without their partners. The way I see it right now, Survival Corps is the epicenter of hope.”
Head to the Survivor Corps page to learn more.
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