'I felt like I had a belt around my chest': A congressman who was hospitalized for 8 days with the coronavirus tells his story

Ben McAdams

  • Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat, was one of the first members of Congress to announce he'd contracted the coronavirus.
  • In an interview with Insider, he recounted how he went from experiencing "pretty mild" symptoms to difficulty breathing, to an 8-day hospital stay where he received oxygen and chest X-rays.
  • "I felt like I had a belt around my chest," he said. "It was just tight so I couldn't breathe deeply."
  • McAdams said that America needed to ramp up testing so that it's available more broadly, and for essential workers like doctors and nurses.
  • After dozens of House Democrats called for members to be able to vote remotely, McAdams said he supports remote voting, but believes it should only used in "times of national emergency."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It was only a matter of time before the coronavirus came to Congress.

Because members travel back and forth between their districts, met with strangers and constituents, and packed into the Capitol's tight corridors and elevators, the question wasn't if a member of Congress would get it, but who would get it first.Advertisement

On March 18, Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat, became one of the first two congressmen to announce they had contracted COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

For a few days, he experienced what some would consider mild symptoms. But then the disease took a turn. The 45-year old, who said he exercises daily, wound up in the hospital for over a week as he battled the disease. Over the course of his illness, his fever would spike to as high as 103 degrees Fahrenheit, and he received supplemental oxygen and X-rays to monitor his beleaguered lungs.

Now virus-free and on the mend at home in Utah, McAdams spoke with Insider about how insidious the virus can be, and how his experience informed what he thinks Congress needs to do to protect Americans - and itself.

From "pretty mild" symptoms to an 8-day hospital stay

McAdams began experiencing symptoms on March 14, just a few hours after he joined hundreds of his House colleagues to vote on a massive coronavirus relief package. In hindsight, he believes he might have contracted the illness during a meeting with a constituent that week. He flew home to Utah's 4th district, and woke up the next day feeling unwell, with aches and a temperature that was inching up. At his doctor's advice, he was isolated as a precaution, but by Monday night, it was getting worse. Advertisement

"It was hard to breathe," McAdams told Insider. "I felt like I had a belt around my chest. It was just tight so I couldn't breathe deeply and my temperature shot up to about 102 degrees."

The congressman announced a positive test result for COVID-19 on Wednesday, March 18. But he continued to work remotely and even granted interviews with the TODAY Show and CNN to about his experience.

But on Friday evening, "it took a turn for the worse," McAdams said. Advertisement

"It just hit me really hard," McAdams continued. "I couldn't stand up and walk across the room without needing to stop and rest. My breath was really short, I was panting."

Knowing that COVID-19 patients could quickly and suddenly deteriorate, his doctor instructed him to go to the hospital and have his oxygen levels checked. McAdams followed his doctors' orders and went to University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, where tests revealed his oxygen levels were indeed low.

"They said they just wanted to watch because, you know, it is known that it can turn get really bad, very quickly so they wanted to watch me overnight," McAdams said. "So I stayed in. And one night became eight nights in the hospital."Advertisement

"This thing's kind of weird," McAdams said, "Because I would rally during the day - and I understand this is pretty common - I would feel much better and then I would just crash" in the afternoons and evenings.

Because of strict isolation protocols, McAdams could only communicate with his wife and 4 children over FaceTime during his lengthy hospital stay.

Congress passed a massive stimulus package. But McAdams says testing must come next.Advertisement

Congress recently voted to infuse the economy with an emergency $2 trillion stimulus package. Some of its key provisions provided Americans meeting a certain income thresh hold with a one-time cash payment of up to $1,200 and a $500 billion Treasury Department lending program for airlines, businesses, states, and municipalities.

But for McAdams, this is just the first step. "What we've got to get to immediately is the ability to test broad numbers of individuals," McAdams said.Advertisement

It concerned him that "we're seeing that so many people can be contagious and asymptomatic," but healthcare providers still could only test a limited number of people. Just last week, the Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Robert Redfield said that as many as 1 in 4 people infected with the coronavirus could be asymptomatic.

At the moment, a scarcity of tests means that only patients who display enough symptoms that match the disease are being tested, a threshhold that initially excluded McAdams. But some asymptomatic celebrities, wealthy Americans, and other high-profile individuals have been able to receive tests. Some likely used private labs to circumvent the traditional healthcare system.

"Nobody should be given priority for testing based on celebrity status," McAdams said. "It should be a medical decision made by doctors who are trying to assess the health of the community."Advertisement

He added: "But we've got to get to the point where testing is available for essential workers," like doctors and nurses on the frontline of the crisis.

Congress needs to protect itself better, but not forget that, "We have an important job to do"

McAdams' case raises a key question: How can Congress safely do its job, which necessitates meeting with constituents and packing the House and Senate floors to vote on legislation, in an era of social distancing?Advertisement

Since his announcement, a handful of other members tested positive for the coronavirus, including Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, who had self-quarantined after coming into contact with McAdams. On the Senate side, Rand Paul of Kentucky caused alarm and ire after he revealed he'd tested positive for the coronavirus but had continued to visit the Capitol as he awaited a diagnosis.

Dozens of House Democrats have pushed to allow members to vote remotely, so they do not have to travel to the Capitol when Americans are being ordered to stay at home as much as possible.

McAdams supports remote voting, but believes it should only be used "rarely" and in "times of national emergency."Advertisement

"We should do everything we can to like everybody else in this country to limit the spread of this virus, by, by working from home to the greatest extent possible," McAdams said, "But also recognize that we have an important job to do and that includes passing legislation that can assist in slowing the spread of this virus and, and also stabilizing the economy and helping those families that are really bearing the hardship of this pandemic."

"So I think it's a matter of balancing the job that we have to do," he said, "And doing it in a way that presents the lowest amount of risk to the public and to other members of Congress." Read more:Advertisement

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has tested positive for the novel coronavirus

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