IDAHO MOUNTAIN BIKER AND JOURNALIST, 27, TESTS POSITIVE FOR COVID-19 [UPDATED 4/2/20]

Joshua Murdock, 27, a former newspaper reporter and pro-level mountain biker, talks about his symptoms, the testing, the loss of his job, the self-isolation and the long wait for the diagnosis.

Longtime racer,  award-winning newspaper reporter,  and professional bike shop mechanic Joshua Murdock has tested positive for COVID-19.  MBA  interviewed Josh on March 29th to find out how he thinks he got it, what the symptoms have been like,  and how it’s changed his life so far. On Thursday,  April 2nd, Josh got the test results. He tested positive for  COVID-19.  Check the update at the end of the story to find out what happens to him now. It’s a shocker!

(Mountain biker/journalist Joshua Murdock)

What made you think you might have the coronavirus?

About two weeks ago, on March 15, I developed a bit of a cough that I originally attributed to some minor allergy-induced nasal congestion and drainage. Around the same time, I completely lost my sense of smell and taste. Even though I’d never experienced loss of smell or taste before, for any reason, I wrote it off as a symptom of congestion. At this time the shop would be open for another day, then we worked in a closed shop for a few more days to finish work that was checked in before the closure.

About a week later, reports began documenting the emerging recognition of such sensory loss as a symptom of mild or otherwise asymptomatic—but still transmittable—COVID-19 cases. Though my congestion had abated at that point, the cough remained and I began experiencing minor fatigue and slight chest aching when breathing in. This combination of symptoms, coupled with my frequent interaction with others at the shop and at the ski resort, made me more suspicious of what might be causing them.

How did you arrange to get tested?

On March 24, I called the local hospital in Ketchum, which had established a coronavirus hotline to screen patients before they arrived at the newly erected outdoor drive-thru test station. The nurse on the phone said my symptoms warranted a test and that I should go to the test station to receive one.

What was the test like?

The test was brief and unpleasant, involving a glorified q-tip being inserted inches deep into the upper reaches of my nasal cavity, farther than I previously knew they extended, and held there for 15 seconds. And then it was over and the 8–10-day wait for results began for me and my prodded brain.

What did the doctors/testers tell you?

Given the long wait for results (due to overwhelmed labs and mine not being a critical case), the nurses at the testing station advised that I likely have a very mild case of COVID-19 but that I won’t know for sure until results come back.

What are you doing while you’re waiting to hear your results?

As I await results, nurses advised, I should presume that I have COVID-19 and self-quarantine as such. I’m under the impression that this is only unenforceable advice, but I sure don’t want to be “that guy” who spreads the infection to others, who may experience serious illness, simply because I feel well enough to go out. I have remained at home since the test and I notified my friends, coworkers and ski partners that I may be infected. The owners of The Elephant’s Perch have been incredibly helpful with dropping off groceries for me. My coworkers/friends immediately stepped up with offers to deliver anything I need, too. If only I could smell and taste the delicious coffee and beer they gave me…

Are you likely to need hospitalization?

No. Fingers crossed, my symptoms will abate in the coming weeks without worsening. This is not a quick flu or a bad cold, so the symptoms I’m experiencing may last well into April. But that’s if I even have it; there’s a chance the test could come back negative, in which case I’ll simply be left bewildered by my symptoms. The cough, fatigue and chest aching have lessened somewhat in the past two days, but the sensory loss is complete and total and has not decreased. I can’t smell or taste even distilled vinegar. . . .  Hot sauce burns slightly but has no flavor.

How long will you be at risk of spreading the virus to others?

If I test negative, then not at all. If I test positive, I’ll receive a phone call from either the local health district or hospital with information on how to proceed.

How long do the symptoms last when somebody gets COVID-19?

I’m not entirely sure, but I presume it depends on the severity of the infection—a few weeks, at minimum, it sounds like.

How many other people do you know who think they have the coronavirus?

A few of my friends whom I socialized and skied with shortly before having symptoms are also experiencing similar symptoms to mine, especially the loss of smell and taste. I’ve spoken with at least four friends specifically who said they have that symptom and that it emerged around the same time.

What are they doing about it?

Most of the people I know, symptomatic or not, are following self-isolation guidelines and remaining home. A few symptomatic people are not as concerned and are out and about, likely infecting others, which is frustrating, but that’s definitely the minority. The frightening thing is that none of us took social-distancing as seriously as we should have before the emergence of symptoms. If we do in fact have COVID-19, we were likely contagious before we felt symptoms.

How are you surviving now that you’re out of work?

The day I was laid off because the shop closed indefinitely (along with nearly everything in the county), I applied and was approved for Idaho unemployment insurance. I’ll receive about half of my normal weekly earnings for up to 18 weeks, and recent or impending state and federal relief packages may yet increase those benefits. Given my drastically reduced spending during isolation, the unemployment benefits should barely cover my rent and basic groceries. I still have health insurance through the shop because I’ll be employed there whenever we reopen.

However, I’m not sure how I’ll pay the auto and renter’s insurance bills due in April, and I wouldn’t have been able to pay my taxes (I owe for the first time this year thanks to the so-called tax “cuts”) if the payment deadline hadn’t been extended. If I do require medical attention, I have no way to pay copays or my couple-thousand-dollar deductible.

But my financial predicament is a cakewalk compared to coworkers with mortgages, families, tuition, etc. I can survive, at least, maybe incurring some debt along the way. I’m more worried for my coworkers and other shop/outdoors employees who, like me, live paycheck-to-paycheck but have greater financial obligations or more tenuous employment or living arrangements.

How long do you think it will be before you get back to work?

That’s the million-dollar question. Some businesses in town, including some bike shops, have already announced closures lasting into June. It’s looking like this pandemic could keep things closed until the beginning of summer. Fourth of July is our first major weekend of the summer season here in the Wood River Valley, so I’m hoping that the valley and the nation are back to normal by then, or at least normal enough to open the shop and have the usual wave of tourists to serve. A booming July 4th would be a great way to restart.

We are a town that survives solely on tourism; without it, we shrivel and die. With talk of 30 percent unemployment nationwide next month and no end in sight for the economic paralysis gripping the nation, it’s really tough to say where any of this leads. It’s unprecedented and it doesn’t inspire optimism.

Are you worried about what’s going to happen to you in the weeks ahead?

I’m privileged enough or maybe naive enough—likely a bit of both—not to worry too much about where I’m headed. Or maybe I’m just flexible enough not to have to worry too much. Maybe that’s the same self-sabotaging stoicism that’s allowed me to misuse and abuse my quality education in pursuit of mountain adventures. I’m not sure—none of us have taken this test before.

I’m holed up in my little condo with my three-month-old presumably Aussie-collie mix, Buddy, and I should be able to make rent and feed myself and Buddy in coming months. Our immediate and most pressing needs—food and shelter—are covered. Beyond that, I’m fairly content to finally reorganize and re-edit my +60,000 photos from the past decade, do a bit of writing, and plan the summer’s bike and climbing adventures. Hopefully they happen.

What I do worry about are the financial impacts for my coworkers/friends, as I mentioned above, and the financial impacts for the shop. The Elephant’s Perch has weathered a lot in its nearly half-century of existence, but this is a new and unprecedented time for all small, local businesses, and it’s tough to say how any of it will play out. Nobody has been here before and there is no roadmap, personally or for a business. I have bounced around from state to state and from bike shops to newspapers and back to a shop, but a lot of people I know don’t have the flexibility of a single, childless 27-year-old.

Right now I just wish I could taste this coffee.

UPDATE: Josh sent MBA a text on April 2nd: “Got a call this afternoon. Test came back positive. On the bright side, because I developed symptoms three weeks ago and never had a fever, and because the symptoms (except loss of smell/taste) began going away a few days ago, I’m cleared to end self-isolation. The great irony of the 8-10-day test result delay is that by the time I find out I have it, I’m no longer contagious and can end my self-quarantine.”

About the author: Joshua Murdock is a 27-year-old journalist, bike mechanic and ski tech in Ketchum, Idaho, home of Sun Valley Resort and the site of U.S. Cross-Country National Championships in 2011 and 2012. He grew up in Maryland, where he began working at shops and racing mountain bikes at 14 years old, before moving to Golden, Colorado, at 18. In Colorado he progressed to racing pro cross-country while working at a local shop and completing a degree in photojournalism. After Colorado, Joshua was an award-winning newspaper reporter and photographer in Utah and Idaho, focusing on breaking news, crime, local government and investigative reporting. The high cost-of-living in Ketchum led him to return to shop work about two years ago, during which time he’s added rock climbing and backcountry skiing to his outdoor pursuits.

Joshua is currently in his second week of being laid off from The Elephant’s Perch, a bike, ski and climbing shop in Ketchum that is closed indefinitely due to coronavirus. Blaine County, where Ketchum and Sun Valley are located, has one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the United States. As of 5:30 p.m. MST on March 30, the county of barely 23,000 people had 148 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases and two deaths. He is awaiting test results for COVID-19.