Jay and Phyllis Koppelman were among the first Californians to test positive for Covid-19. (COURTESY JAY KOPPELMAN)
Jay and Phyllis Koppelman were among the first Californians to test positive for Covid-19. (COURTESY JAY KOPPELMAN)

Local Jewish couple in their 70s recounts battle with Covid-19

On March 16, a Jewish couple that lives in Contra Costa County didn’t know if they were going to survive. They had Covid-19.

“We felt like life had been a great ride for us,” Phyllis Koppelman told J. recently.

Phyllis and her husband, Jay — both in their mid-70s and married for more than 50 years — were among the first 100 or so Californians to test positive for the novel coronavirus (now there are more than 10,000 confirmed cases in the state).

Their story is one filled with fear as well as frustration at a health care system that was slow to respond to the emerging pandemic.

But it’s also one of gratitude toward their family and the Jewish community — major sources of support and comfort during the couple’s worst days over the past few weeks.

The Koppelmans, members of Beth Jacob Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Oakland, had traveled to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., which began March 1.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual get-together lasted three days and was attended by some 18,000 people. By March 12, four days before the Koppelmans tested positive, there were six known cases among conference attendees.

However, the Koppelmans suspect they acquired the virus from someone sitting next to them on their March 3 plane ride back to California — someone who appeared to be sick, they said.

In the early hours of March 5, Jay said he woke up with an “odd” headache.

“I don’t usually get headaches,” he said. “So, that was kind of weird.”

Then he got a fever and chills, describing the feeling as something akin to a “horrible hangover.”

The couple phoned their primary-care doctor, who initially told them it wasn’t possible to get tested at that time. (At that point, there were 45 confirmed cases in California.)

But after one week of worsening symptoms, doctors finally approved a test for Jay on March 12, at which point there were 1,645 confirmed cases and 41 deaths in the U.S.

Jay described the testing process as being like “some type of movie.” The couple was told to drive to the back entrance of a medical facility in Martinez, where they waited inside their car to present Jay’s identification. “They were wearing spacesuits, basically,” he said. “Through the [opened] window, they put these probes into the back of my throat and up my nostrils.”

After waiting four days, Jay received a positive Covid-19 result.

“Given the way I was feeling,” he said of the wait, “it seemed like an eternity.” At that point, Phyllis was experiencing a “nasty” headache followed by persistent fevers.

Jay and Phyllis Koppelman with "David Ben-Gurion" at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., in early March. (COURTESY JAY KOPPELMAN)
Jay and Phyllis Koppelman with “David Ben-Gurion” at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., in early March. (COURTESY JAY KOPPELMAN)

Meanwhile, doctors presumed that a feverish Phyllis had the virus, also, and they were told to get chest X-rays that day. Jay’s revealed that he had developed pneumonia, which can be deadly for those who have Covid-19. That very same day, he was told to go straight to an emergency room in Walnut Creek.

March 16 proved to be the hardest day for the couple. While Jay was admitted to the emergency room, Phyllis was left in a nearby tent where, she said, it was very difficult to obtain information from any of the site’s health care workers.

“I was left thinking, ‘Is this the last time I’m [ever] going to see him?’” Phyllis said. “I said [to the health care workers], ‘You have to figure out a different way to treat people who are sick, who are spouses of patients, because this is not going to work.’”

Finally, there was good news. Phyllis was told that Jay had not developed severe pneumonia, and that his oxygen levels were high enough for him to heal at home.

Phyllis also had a frank moment with one of the facility’s doctors, who admitted to her that the medical crew had been given a paltry amount of personal protective equipment — a problem that currently is being reported at other California hospitals.

“I said, ‘I’m sure it’s scary for you,’” Phyllis told the doctor.

“It’s terrifying,” the doctor replied.

Phyllis later expounded on what she saw during the early days of the coronavirus crisis: A health care system trying to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

“I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of vaccine research on diseases like this,” she said. “Developing adequate systems for response, not only emergency response, but shelter-in-place and adequate testing materials.”

Thanks to the research and advocacy by one of the couple’s daughters — as well as Jay and Phyllis’ own persistence — doctors separately prescribed antibiotics for bacterial infections that Jay and Phyllis both developed. In hindsight, they feel that the antibiotics dramatically helped their Covid-19 symptoms, although antibiotics generally are not used to treat viruses.

In the days since the March 16 positive test result, the Koppelmans have slowly recovered from the virus, both physically and emotionally. They say they’re spending their time at home in Pleasant Hill listening to music, reading and playing piano.

“There’s been a huge outpouring from family and friends,” Phyllis said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much that’s meant to us. It has been, I think very, very important in terms of our recovery.”

The two keep kosher, and have received food deliveries from their fellow Beth Jacob congregants and the rabbi’s family.

“For our community,” said Beth Jacob Rabbi Gershon Albert, “their diagnosis brought a distant reality close to home. It has also brought out some of the best in the community. It’s brought out the light of the darkness.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.