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29-year-old Chelan County man learns a painful lesson: Youth doesn’t mean you’re immune to coronavirus

A splitboarder looks up toward the summit of Mt. Fernow, above Lake Chelan on Saturday, March 7. Just days later the photographer, Ryan Irvin, became the first person in Chelan County to be diagnosed with COVID-19. As of Friday, his snowboarding partner, pictured here, was not sick. (COURTESY of RYAN IRVIN / COURTESY of RYAN IRVIN)

After a successful weekend snowboarding 9,000-foot peaks high above Lake Chelan in the North Cascades, Ryan Irvin, along with roughly 20 others, hopped on a ferry.

As they sailed back to civilization, a “funny, quirky guy” from the East Coast pulled out a bottle of maple syrup and offered the group a ceremonial swig – a toast to another successful backcountry adventure.

“This is how you get the coronavirus,” someone joked.

Everyone laughed and most partook because, after all, they were young and fit and mostly unconcerned by an old person’s disease.

Four days later, Irvin started coughing.

His throat was sore, and he was tired. His girlfriend, who’d just returned from a trip to Colorado, also felt sick. They ran some errands in Wenatchee, but by 5 p.m., deeply exhausted, they conked out in their Leavenworth-area home.

The next morning, March 15, he woke up with a raging fever and a chest that felt like someone was pushing on it. Concerned, he went and got tested for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the 29-year-old Irvin became the first confirmed novel coronavirus case in Chelan County.

“It’s pretty crazy to be feeling that healthy to (now) having a hard time breathing a week later,” he said.

Dangerous misconception

Irvin’s story highlights a common, and potentially deadly, misconception about COVID-19. That is, young and healthy people don’t have to worry.

While young adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s may have stronger immune systems to fight the virus, it does not mean they cannot be transmitters of the disease or seriously affected by it.

“They can be and will be impacted by this,” Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Bob Lutz said. “We won’t see the number of deaths that we do in seniors, but they will be impacted.”

So far, 35% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Washington are in adults from ages 20-49. Nationwide, 38% of all patients hospitalized were age 20 to 54, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Wednesday. As with all people, healthy younger adults should take the threat of COVID-19 seriously, health officials warn.

“Being young in and of itself does not make you immune to this,” Lutz said.

Young, fit and brave

After more than a week of high fever, a body shaking cough and aching bones, that’s the message Irvin is preaching.

On Friday, he published an account of his sickness on the skiing and snowboarding website Backcountry.

“Most seasons, I ski 70 to 100 days, and in the off-season, I climb, run and bike,” he wrote. “I eat healthfully and have no pre-existing conditions.”

That hasn’t stopped him from getting sicker than he’s ever been. As of Friday, seven days into his illness, he’s starting to feel better, if only slightly. His fever – which was as high as 101.8 degrees – now hovers around 99 degrees.

His coughing, which at first was nearly nonstop, has lessened, as has the constriction on his chest. But the coughing fits are now isolated acute attacks “to the point where I gag or puke.”

Although everything about the sickness is more intense, he said the chest constriction and pain have been scariest.

“The breathing thing was obviously the most concerning and the most unfamiliar I guess,” he said. “We’re all used to getting sicknesses and fevers and coughs and stuff, but the breathing thing is the most concerning because it’s not something many of us have to deal with.”

He’s optimistic and feels he’s on his way to recovery, although some accounts of longer-lasting damage – particularly to lungs – worry him. To pass the time, he’s been watching movies with his girlfriend or sleeping. She was unable to get tested, but they assume she has the virus too – although her symptoms are very different.

He’s also been on the phone a lot. That’s because Irvin traveled extensively the two weeks before he got sick. Now, he’s calling everyone and anyone he can think of whom he might have infected.

“In my head, I was kicking myself over and over again,” he said.

An adventurer

Irvin has lived in Leavenworth for two years, although he travels a lot chasing snow and mountain highs.

Most years, he makes money hanging Christmas lights in Salt Lake in a frenzy of work and lives off those savings as he follows the snow throughout the western U.S. and Canada. He is up most mornings at 3 a.m. and skis for 12 hours or more.

All of which is to say, he’s fit and not adverse to risk.

That, combined with all of the normal and understandable confusion of an unfolding pandemic, meant COVID-19 was barely on his radar.

“There was this misconception that young people don’t get affected from it,” he said. “I think it was easy early on to not alter behavior.”

Now, he’s all too aware. He doesn’t know where or when exactly he got the virus. It could have been from his girlfriend when she returned from Colorado. Or, it could have been on a two-week skiing trip through rural British Columbia.

Or maybe on that boat, taking shots of maple syrup with friends. He doesn’t know.

Just to be safe, he’s calling anyway.

“Please: I urge you to take this seriously,” he wrote Friday. “If I knew what I was subjecting all these small communities to, I never would have left my home.”

Reporter Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.

CORRECTION: Due to an editor’s error the website for which Irvin first wrote about his experience was incorrectly named. The website is Backcountry. The story has been corrected.