LISTEN: Petersburg mom lost her sense of smell. Days later, she tested positive for COVID-19

Megan Litster poses with her family near Petesburg. (From L-R) Issac (13), Evelyn (8), Cody Litster, Megan Litster, Ruby (10), Wyatt (15). (Photo courtesy of Megan Litster)

When Megan Litster first noticed something strange she was in the truck with her husband and four kids. They pulled over to check out an odd odor that everyone smelled in the truck —except for her.

“Everybody commented, ‘It’s funny mom that you didn’t smell it…hah hah,’” Litster said. “And I thought, that is kind of weird.”

The 40-year-old, healthy mom didn’t think much of it until days later when a friend from Washington tested positive for COVID-19, and they had no sense of smell either.

Looking back, Litster guesses she was infected when traveling in the Lower 48 at the beginning of March. She was on a road trip with her mother to Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. They’d planned the trip for a year and when they set out, the word coronavirus was just starting to surface. At the end of the trip, her mom went back to Oregon and has remained healthy. But Litster had a one-night layover in Seattle before returning to Alaska so she thinks she must’ve contracted the virus there.

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“That seems most likely,” Litster said. “Of course, I’ll never, ever know.”

In Seattle, Litster spent the night in a hotel, took dinner back to her room, worked out at the gym and wiped everything down as usual. She is germ conscience and sanitizes while traveling but on this trip, she was extra cautious even wiping down restaurant tables.

“Sometimes, depending on how the waiter set my cup down I would use a Clorox wipe to wipe my glass,” Litster said, laughing. “I mean, I don’t sign a receipt with a pen without sanitizing after or touch a handrail without sanitizing.”

Litster returned to Petersburg March 14 and didn’t notice anything until the truck ride. In retrospect, she says she had a few harder-than-normal workout runs and felt like she had a slight nasal burn at times but none of the usual Covid symptoms listed by the Center for Disease Control.

“Fever, cough, runny nose, abdominal pain, diarrhea, all these things, and I have not had one of those symptoms,” she said.

Litster works at the Petersburg Medical Center behind the scenes in the finance department. After returning home she initially worked for a few days and wore a mask. At the time, the medical center was screening for fevers at the door but just a few days later health recommendations changed and out of state travelers were supposed to self-quarantine so Litster started working from home.

Her initial loss-of-smell symptom did not warrant a test, according to state or federal guidelines. Eventually though, her physician decided to test her anyway on March 26. And then, Litster waited 10 days for results. When asked what she did during that time, she choked back tears. It was very stressful. In total, she spent 22 days isolating herself from her four children ages 8 to 15 and from her husband. The family would take occasional outdoor outings together but otherwise, she stayed alone.

“I mean, we live in the same house, it’s not like I moved out,” Litster said. “But just distancing from them as much as possible, no hugs, no meal prep, no snuggles, the things that you normally do as a mom, my husband’s just been carrying that load.”

Litster has now been out of the office for 19 days. Her first symptoms were 17 days ago. She’s no longer considered contagious but now her family is under quarantine for another few weeks. So, she’s just going to stick it out with them at home. Her husband, who is an Alaska State Trooper, will be tested but her kids will not be. She says they’ve been isolated at their home about 10 miles out of town for weeks.

Anyone who might have come in close contact with Litster will be contacted by Alaska Public Health officials.

It hasn’t been easy for Litster to come forward and tell her story but she says she wants to share her experience for a few reasons. She wants to reassure others that she’s been isolating at home and also she wants to caution people about the virus spreading when you feel normal.

“It’s so mild,” Litster said. “I wouldn’t have even thought to be tested if it were not for our friends who experienced this. And everyone has to act like they have it. That’s the only way to protect our vulnerable population.”

Litster encourages everyone to stay and home but if they need to go out, wear masks and social distance.

(The State now counts two cases of Covid for Petersburg residents. The first was 76-year-old Pete Erickson who died in a Seattle hospital last month and is thought to have contracted the disease while receiving medical treatment there. Litster is the first case of a resident currently in town.)

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Angela Denning is a reporter at KFSK in Petersburg.

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