“People were stopping to stare”: First Coloradan who tested positive for COVID tells her story

When Nan Breen came down with extreme fatigue and flu-like symptoms last March, she knew neither what the coronavirus was nor what havoc it was already wreaking around the world.

“I think I had heard some things about a virus found in China, but I didn’t give it a second thought,” said the 79-year-old from Douglas County (who turns 80 Monday).

Turns out, she was the first Colorado resident to be confirmed positive for COVID-19 — as announced by the governor on March 5, 2020.

Breen had just returned from a riverboat tour on the Nile River in Egypt. She didn’t feel well when she got back to Colorado, and her doctor told her to take some antibiotics and rest up. She laughs nervously now when she recalls how she stopped at the DMV on the way to the doctor, likely exposing countless people to the virus.

Aside from the minor illness, all was apparently well — until she got a call from the Tri-County Health Department. Soon, she was on her way to get tested for COVID-19 in a shopping center parking lot.

“It was like something you’d see in a movie. They said, ‘Don’t come into the office. Park outside and call us, and we’ll come out.’ Two girls came out — face shields, all the gear … It was mid-afternoon and people were stopping to stare.”

The health department called again to tell her she was, indeed, positive. Then, the questions: Had she gone anywhere since she got off the airplane? Had she been in contact with other people? What were her symptoms?

She was a main character — though not identified by name — during Gov. Jared Polis’ March 5, 2020, news conference, where he confirmed the presence of the virus in Colorado. There were two cases he spoke of that day, a young Californian and Breen.

Breen knew little about what she was going through, and the state didn’t know much at that time, either. It was so early in the pandemic that Polis, when asked whether Coloradans should change their plans or daily lives, said, “I don’t plan on changing mine.”

State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said the state had referred several coronavirus test samples to the Centers for Disease Control before the first two positives.

“As you have a few negatives come back, you start to feel a little more comfortable, and the anxiety isn’t at high for the next tests you’re doing,” she said. “But getting that first positive was sort of another feeling of, OK, it’s go time.”

Health officials called Breen regularly to check in. She was feeling OK, but it took a long time for the fatigue to wear off. She was suffering memory loss, which she’d never had prior to being diagnosed with the virus. She says she still hasn’t recovered on that front.

Like many Americans, Breen started reading the news and watching television constantly while in isolation at home. Colorado started reporting hundreds of new cases per day, though the state believes many thousands more were never confirmed due to a lack of testing.

She even learned that someone else on the Egyptian river cruise had died.

“It certainly could have been me,” she said. “I was extremely blessed.”

Her second test was at the same shopping center. This time, staff asked her to meet them around back so there wouldn’t be any public spectacle. Again, a pair of people decked out in what looked like spacesuits jammed a stick up her nose.

She was negative.

A year later, Breen has just gotten her second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

“It is amazing to me how many people still doubt that there is such a thing as COVID, and still do not want to get the vaccine,” she said. “I strongly feel that anybody that has the opportunity to get one of the three vaccines definitely should take advantage.”

Polis called her this week, as he prepared to mark the one-year anniversary.

“He was asking me how it had all occurred, about my trip, how I was feeling,” she said.

He also asked if she’s ready to travel again. Laughing, Breen said, “Maybe in 2022.”

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