I had coronavirus: here’s what you should know

Best reads of 2020: Follow quarantine instructions and avoid hospitals unless absolutely necessary

“The doctor came in and said, unfortunately, the tests were positive. I had Covid-19.” Morena Colombi, a 59-year-old company worker, was an early patient in Italy’s coronavirus outbreak that has claimed 1,016 lives in the country.

Now recovering in total isolation in her home close to Milan, she has decided to share her story to urge people to follow quarantine instructions, and to avoid hospitals unless absolutely necessary so medical staff can focus on saving people whose lives are threatened.

“The measures the government has taken are absolutely necessary. People like me who don’t have other illnesses can survive it. But there are many people who have existing conditions, and it’s very dangerous for them,” she said.

“It is very infectious. Someone can not know they have it, go outside, and pass it on to people who have existing conditions and for whom it is very dangerous. Unfortunately, we can’t know the state of health of everyone around us, so it is the responsibility of everyone.”


Colombi’s illness began on Valentine’s Day. At first it seemed like an ordinary cold or flu: she felt chills, aches, and was stuffed up, though her nose was not running.

“I felt extremely tired. I had no strength, I couldn’t even cook,” she recalled. “I had this awful dry cough that kept getting worse . . . at a certain point it began to be difficult to breathe.”

When the first case of coronavirus was reported on February 21st, Colombi began to suspect she had the virus. She tried unsuccessfully to get a response from emergency and information numbers, before she put on a face mask and her son brought her to the local accident and emergency.

"The doctors and nurses at first were reluctant to assess me. But I mentioned I had been in contact with people who had been in China about 10 days ago. At that point everything changed," she recalled. "They also became worried, and put on masks and gloves."

She was the hospital’s first suspected coronavirus case. There were no isolation facilities, so nurses set up a trolley and a bedpan for Colombi in a disused office to keep her separate from other patients. There she stayed until February 22nd, when the results of her Covid-19 test came back positive.

Colleagues at the company where Colombi works were placed in immediate quarantine at home for a fortnight, as were her family members. Colombi was transferred to a larger hospital with facilities for infectious diseases. Scans of her lungs showed her condition was not worsening, and as she was able to breathe independently, she was soon discharged as the beds were needed for patients in critical condition.

Everyone got a bit of a fright, thinking that in the preceding days I could have infected someone. But from what it seems here there's no one else who is sick, luckily

Since then, she has been in total isolation in her apartment where she lives alone in the town of Truccazzano. On accessing the internet, she discovered that while she had been in hospital she had been the subject of panicked local gossip and false claims.

“This annoyed me a bit, because it’s not like I’m pestilent, and if I walk down the street I infect the air. I live in a small town where everyone knows everyone,” Colombi said. “Everyone got a bit of a fright, thinking that in the preceding days I could have infected someone. But from what it seems here there’s no one else who is sick, luckily.”

Colombi's experience raises questions about how to manage patients who are recovering from Covid-19. In Italy, a fifth of Covid-19 patients have had "critical" symptoms. This has overwhelmed capacity in hospitals, meaning discharging patients who can cope at home is very important. But those patients need a support network to maintain isolation, as well as continuing tests until they are clear of the disease. There are still unknowns over how to safely ensure the infection is not passed on.

“I’m in total isolation. Thanks be to God I have friends who can go to the shops to get groceries for me; I call them and they leave them for me at the doorstep. But not having contact with people becomes difficult,” Colombi said.

“I live on my own, so I don’t need to disinfect everywhere I touch in case I infect someone else. Unless I can catch it again myself. This is a big question, no one knows yet the answer to that,” she added.

“I’m waiting for the result of my test and I’m hoping it will be negative. I still have a bit of a cold and I cough occasionally, but I cross my fingers and hope to God.”