The virus that put John Bessler in the hospital — the virus that left him coughing up blood after days of fever in his apartment, alone — was at first mistaken for the common cold.
What else, after all, could it have been?
“I didn’t think he had it at the beginning,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Bessler’s wife, tells PEOPLE. “I mean, he was quarantining himself. But based on what he told me, I was far away, but I didn’t really think it.”
The “it” she is referring to is a new coronavirus which first emerged in China in late 2019. It causes the respiratory disease COVID-19 and is highly contagious, spread by coughs and sneezes from an infected person or after having contact with a surface they have touched.
In three months, the virus has spread around the world. As of Thursday, there were approximately 521,000 confirmed cases in more than 150 countries, with about 75,000 cases in the U.S.
More than 23,000 people have died, including about 1,000 in America.
The majority of COVID-19 patients experience only mild or moderate symptoms, but a fraction of them develop more severe complications such as interstitial pneumonia, requiring protracted hospitalizations.
The goal right now, according to health and government officials, is to slow the virus’ spread by urging people to stay home so as not to overwhelm hospitals while treatments and a vaccine are developed.
But the virus can be deceptive: Some people who have contracted it but don’t show symptoms — and who make up an unknown percentage of all coronavirus patients — are still able to transmit it. The virus can also live outside of the body for hours, even days.
Sen. Klobuchar, 59, believes her husband contracted his illness incidentally.
“We were at events in Minnesota, the kind of things you would think where you might get it, but no one we know got it: no one on our staff, no one,” she says. “And so then we come back to Washington and somehow he mysteriously must’ve gotten it, just probably by a passerby or a surface or something like that. And then he got sick like four or five days later.”
By then the couple, married since 1993, had split up for work. Bessler, 52, is a law professor at the University of Baltimore. Klobuchar, a senator in Minnesota since 2007, recently ended her presidential campaign and is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden.
When Bessler first got sick, they thought nothing of it.
“At the very beginning, I was in Minnesota and he said, ‘Oh, I have a cold. It’s just a cold, just a cold.” And I go, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ “ Klobuchar recalls. “Then I would call and I’d say, ‘Take your temperature,’ and then it was always over 100 degrees.”
Fever, cough and chest pains are signal symptoms of the coronavirus, which can otherwise seem like the common cold or flu.
“He was coughing really badly,” Klobuchar says of her husband. “And then when he coughed up the blood, that was kind of the last straw.”
Bessler was hospitalized in Virginia on Friday. His coronavirus test, taken before he went into the hospital, came back positive on Monday morning. He had pneumonia and was on oxygen because his levels were low — if it was just the former, maybe, he would have been released to recuperate at home.
“His temperature is better, but there’s still other problems,” Klobuchar told PEOPLE on Tuesday. “And they won’t let him leave for good reason. Because a lot of people have had this, when they have it as bad as he does, and it suddenly goes worse — especially when he has pneumonia.”
“I just thank God that he is not on a ventilator, and that he’s in a stable condition,” she said then. “But he’s still there.”
On Thursday afternoon, Klobuchar announced that Bessler had taken “a good turn” and been sent home to recover.
The absence the virus had created around him — the lack of personal care from loved ones — was another of its insidious symptoms.
“And I think one of the hardest things about this disease is that you can’t be there, and you can’t thank the health care workers,” Klobuchar says. “You can’t be by your loved one’s side and you’re just detached and you can’t even really send things to them.”
She says that while he was hospitalized, she and Bessler and their daughter, Abigail (who was “holed up” at home in New York, where she also works), stayed in regular contact — and he seemed in a better place, with time.
“If it was normal circumstances, I would be there with him, every part of every day,” Klobuchar says. “But I can’t, and so you delve into your work and then I talk to him. My daughter gives me reports. She talks to him as well. And so then we share information and then I text with the doctor [and] talk to the doctors about three or four times a day.”
Bessler, Klobuchar said Tuesday, “[was] working the phone. He hates missing teaching his classes remotely. Finally he realized that maybe couldn’t do that from the hospital with coronavirus. So it’s a hard thing, and he’s at least being able to complain about stuff like that now. Because before he was just feeling too sick.”
Klobuchar, who spoke with PEOPLE in between work on the pending $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, says she was happy with the federal government’s changing response to the virus. President Donald Trump, who had earlier downplayed it compared to the seasonal flu and said opponents were trying to politicize it as a “hoax,” last week released suggested nationwide guidelines for social distancing to slow new infections.
“I think it’s getting better, and it helped [my husband] to make the right decisions,” Klobuchar says. “He would have infected a whole lot more people than I would have, because he would have given it to me.”
Klobuchar has not been tested because she said she had not showed symptoms and was not around Bessler in the 14-day window when he could have transmitted the virus while sick.
Elsewhere, Klobuchar has not been able to see her father, the famed newspaper columnist Jim Klobuchar, because he is in a care facility that has tightened its protocols to limit people who might spread the virus to an at-risk group. (People over 60 and with underlying conditions are more vulnerable.)
But the senator has talked to her dad, who is in good spirits.
Meanwhile, there is work to be done and a virus still spreading.
“Good,” she tells PEOPLE about how she’s faring. Then, with a slight pause: “Sort of good.”
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.
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