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Column: He got COVID-19 after working for someone who tested positive but kept it secret

Stephan Sie makes IT service house calls, with mask and shield, but a careless employer may have infected him.
(Stephan Sie)

He’s a tech whiz who makes house and office calls, which put him at high risk during a pandemic. But since early last year he has tried to play it safe while keeping his small business afloat.

At work, he wears two masks and a face shield. And, for his own safety and that of his clients, he maintains social distance.

But still, Stephan Sie of Glendale got a bad case of COVID-19, just in time for Christmas.

Not because he let his guard down. Not because he went to a party or took any stupid risks, as so many people have.

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Sie believes he got sick because an employer he worked closely with had tested positive but didn’t tell him, and still came to the office.

“It felt like so much of a betrayal,” said Sie, whose one-man company — Computer Office Resource Specialists — is out of commission while he recuperates.

In the first year of the pandemic, the virus has been a lethal weapon, killing more than 10,000 people in Los Angeles County and nearly 350,000 nationally. Yet still, we have the mask resisters, the science deniers, the hordes who travel or congregate without consideration of others, including front-line healthcare workers.

Sie’s story reveals a type of thoughtless behavior that’s an all-too-common driver of the virus’ spread.

Between late November and mid-December, Sie spent a couple of weeks helping two small, independent businesses move from one building to another one just across the street in Culver City. His clients were both CPAs, one named Cy, the other Ted, and they were the only people he worked for on site during that period.

“On Wednesday the 16th, as I’m leaving, I thought I was the only person in the office, except that I thought I heard Ted coughing. I wasn’t sure,” said Sie. “As I opened the door to go out, all of a sudden Ted walks out and he’s got his mask on.”

Sie said he noticed the mask because Ted often didn’t wear one. Another thing that stood out, said Sie, was that Ted — who loved to chat — had little to say that day. Sie asked if Ted was still going to visit a relative for Christmas. He recalls Ted saying no, that his plans had changed. He offered no explanation.

That evening, Sie sat down to a nice salmon dinner with his wife, a bookkeeper who helps him run his business. But Sie couldn’t smell or taste the salmon. He knew the loss of those senses could be a symptom of COVID-19, but hoped for the best.

“The next morning I woke up and had totally lost my sense of taste and smell. I was otherwise OK, but my wife woke up with a fever and coughing and fatigue,” said Sie.

They drove to a pop-up COVID test site at a hardware store in Van Nuys on Thursday, but that evening, Sie did the responsible thing. He called Ted and Cy to tell them he was feeling OK, but had lost his sense of taste and smell.

“I said, ‘Hey, listen … you may wanna get yourself tested because if I’m positive, there’s a chance I may have infected you as well,’” says Sie.

On Sunday, Dec. 20, Sie and his wife got their test results. They both had COVID-19. And they had both become much sicker, with his wife bed-ridden. On Monday, he called Ted with the news.

“He said, ‘OK, thanks for letting me know,’” says Sie, who felt that there was still something odd in Ted’s manner, as if he were holding something back.

“I asked, ‘Is something else going on?’ And Ted said, ‘Yeah, I tested positive, too.’ So I said, ‘OK, when did you test positive?’ And he says, ‘Oh, it was last week.’ I said, ‘Wait, what?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think it was last Monday that I got my positive test results.’ And I said, ‘You knew you were positive a week ago, and you still had me come in to help you?’”

Sie was livid and demanded an explanation. He says Ted told him he kept the door of his office closed and wore a mask, and he thought there wouldn’t be a problem for others in the office.

“I told him that doesn’t mean anything. You’re still sharing the air with everyone else through the ventilation system,” said Sie. “You knew you were sick and you made me sick.”

Cy also got tested, twice with negative results before a third test came back positive. Another independent businessman who worked in the same office also tested positive.

“I confronted Ted and asked why he didn’t tell people instead of putting us through all of this stuff,” said Cy. “And he said, ‘Because I thought I could get away with it.’ Which is probably typical of a lot of people in L.A., and it’s why we still have this problem.”

But what did Ted mean by saying he thought he could get away with it? Did he mean that if he passed on the virus, nobody would know it came from him? Or that if he had no symptoms, or mild symptoms, he probably wasn’t very contagious?

Cy said he believes Ted thought that if he wore a mask and kept his distance, nobody else would get the virus from him.

It’s impossible to know with certainty who in that office got the virus first, or who spread it to whom. But it’s hard to believe that anyone could be selfish, reckless and dumb enough to test positive and not have the decency to immediately isolate and warn those he’d been in contact with.

I called Ted, who said he had “no comment” except to say that I didn’t know the full story of what happened. Then give it to me, I said, asking how he could go to work knowing he had COVID-19. Ted cussed me out, hung up, and called back a short time later to reiterate his refusal to talk about it.

But he did say this:

“I probably shouldn’t have been in my office,” Ted said. “I made a mistake.”

Duhhhh!

I’m withholding Ted’s last name for now because I couldn’t get his full account of what happened, and because the point of this story isn’t to shame one person; it is to remind everyone there are no excuses for treating this virus as if it’s no big deal. But I reported the details of Sie’s story to county health officials for tracing purposes, because Sie told me he had not been able to get through to the county.

You know what, folks?

We’re still going to be in this mess a year from now if we don’t wake up. We’re never going to beat the coronavirus if people refuse to take the vaccine when it’s available, and unless we get much smarter and a lot more considerate of others.

With morgues overwhelmed, hospitals stuffing patients into hallways and turning ambulances away, a new strain of the virus on the loose and a national death toll inching toward 400,000, when are people going to realize that acting like a fool can literally get somebody killed?

Sie told me he and his wife have completely isolated in their apartment, and he’s feeling better now and has his taste and smell back, but his wife’s recovery has been much slower. They’ve both experienced extreme fatigue and loss of appetite and forced themselves to snack, just to keep up their strength.

“There’s a brain fog, where I’m talking to you but I have to close my eyes to concentrate. It’s like thinking is an effort, and walking from the living room to the kitchen could be exhausting,” Sie said, adding that he and his wife worry over stories about people who experience symptoms for months and may have permanent damage.

Having missed two weeks of work so far, Sie posted about his experience on his Facebook page, and thanked those who have taken precautions to protect themselves and others.

“And for those of you who still believe this a hoax, or some political ploy, or think wearing a mask is tyranny and an infringement on your freedoms,” Sie wrote, “I have a finger I’d like to show you.” I think I know which one.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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