Jack Siebert was six weeks into his study abroad trip in Spain earlier this month when he came down with what he calls a “nasty fever.”
The next weekend, the 20-year-old college junior found himself in a packed crowd at O’Hare Airport, waiting hours to get through customs and baggage claim as he scrambled to get home.
On Monday, Siebert learned he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Since then, he’s been quarantined in the basement of his family’s Old Town neighborhood house. His mom, Kate Siebert, who started showing COVID-19 symptoms before her son got back from Madrid, is isolated upstairs.
Because her son tested positive, doctors told Kate Siebert to assume that she had also contracted coronavirus, but she has not been tested.
‘I feel terrible that it’s hard on them’
There are four Sieberts at home, and they’re all living distinctly different lives.
Kate is living and working in her son’s old room, while her son, a theater student at New York University, wakes up in the basement and gets on his laptop for his online classes. His sister, who also just got back from college, does the same in her room.
John Siebert, Jack’s dad, is busy making coffee, cooking and cleaning the house. He constantly scrubs counters and doorknobs and hangs up reminders for Kate and Jack to put on their masks if they leave their rooms.
“He’s having to do everything,” Kate said. “My husband and my daughter do all the work cooking and cleaning and bringing us meals. I feel terrible that it’s hard on them.”
The quarantined mom and son eat breakfast and lunch alone after John drops it off at their door. But they like to share dinner together in the basement, away from the others.
“I’m envious of the families who can play games and do puzzles,” Kate said. “We can’t do that together, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
‘I’m very much a tough-it-out kind of person’
When Jack and his friends at NYU’s Madrid campus first heard of coronavirus-related closures in Europe, they weren’t too worried. After all, their school hadn’t yet directed them to go home.
“Everyone was sort of like, I’m going to stay and wait it out because it was an indefinite date,” he said.
On March 9, his university alerted the Madrid campus, recommending they make plans to head home. That night Jack fell sick with a fever, a cough and a bad headache. But a doctor he consulted in Madrid told him it likely wasn’t coronavirus and tested him instead for strep throat, he said.
“I’m very much a tough-it-out kind of person, so I literally said to myself, my fever is probably stress-induced — which, fevers can’t really happen that way,” he said, adding that anyone with mild symptoms should assume they have COVID-19 and follow public health officials’ guidance to stay home.
When confusion started a couple days later over President Trump’s European travel ban, Jack made plans to head home so he wouldn’t be stuck overseas amid the crisis. In the rush to get home, he wasn’t able to get the results for his strep throat test.
Then, he got stuck for three and a half hours last Saturday in the mess at O’Hare.
“They actually put hundreds of people in a very small space while there’s a massive global health crisis going on with people traveling in from Madrid, from Italy, planes from hotbeds of the virus,” he said.
The next day, the mother and son walked to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where Jack, wearing a mask, waited outside for a nurse to bring him to a separate entrance to get tested.
Both said they feel lucky they don’t have underlying medical conditions and aren’t immunocompromised. Their biggest worry is for healthcare workers and other essential employees, like their family friends who work in grocery stores.
“I think we all just have to really take care of each other,” Kate said.