When Jose Leon suddenly started experiencing severe flu-like symptoms in March, he suspected COVID-19.
He quickly ran out of breath at the gym and developed a cough that “went a little crazy.” He developed a fever and cold sweats and lost his appetite. It was the worst he’d ever felt in his life, he recalled.
“I couldn’t stop being tired — really tired,” Leon, 40, who lives in Lemoore, California, with his wife, Carmen, and five children. “It got worse by the week.”
“I’ve never seen him so vulnerable,” said his wife, 39. “He wouldn’t walk, he wouldn’t get out of bed. He lost weight extremely quickly… it was really scary.”
What is valley fever?
But when Leon was tested for COVID-19, the result was negative every time. His GP had few answers, even as Leon’s condition deteriorated so much that Carmen had to take him to the emergency room twice.
The couple did not know it at the time, but it was not a virus that caused the health crisis. The culprit was a small fungus that lives in the soil in the U.S. Southwest and was recently found in southern Washington state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned.
When people inhale dust containing the fungus, it can infect the lungs and cause a disease known as valley fever or coccidioidomycosis.
In California, the number of reported cases of valley fever has “increased sharply” in recent years, tripling from 2014 to 2018, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Symptoms, including fatigue, cough, fever, shortness of breath, and night sweats, can last for months. They go away for many people without any treatment, but up to 10% of patients with valley fever develop serious or long-term problems in their lungs, the CDC noted.
Strong anti-fungal medication needed
That’s what happened to Leon, who was finally tested for the disease in April when he went to the emergency room for the second time. By the time the result was positive and doctors finally had a diagnosis, the fungus had already spread through his lungs, the couple said.
Leon had to be given amphotericin B, a strong antifungal drug given intravenously to treat potentially life-threatening fungal infections.
He had to stay in the hospital until the end of July because his insurance did not cover amphotericin B injections in an outpatient clinic. Leon continued to need the medication, so the only way he could get it was as a patient in the hospital, Carmen Leon said.
Leon was finally healthy enough to be weaned off amphotericin B and was “overjoyed” to be going home this month. But he has yet to take an antifungal medication, four pills a day, maybe for years or maybe for the rest of his life, his wife said. The drug is strong enough to fight the fungus, but it also has strong side effects, including nausea and loss of appetite.
‘This has completely changed our lives’
Leon is now considered immunocompromised, so he can’t be around large groups of people, his wife noted.
The family is shocked by how much Valley Fever has turned their previously comfortable, active lives upside down.
“You can never really understand how awful it is until you experience it firsthand or you see someone go through it,” she noted.
Leon continues to battle a severe cough and will not be able to return to work as a machine operator in a factory until next year. Carmen Leon has worked part-time to keep the household afloat. The couple — who have five children, ages 1 to 17, and bought a new home two years ago — have turned to crowdfunding for financial help.
“This has completely changed our lives,” Leon said. “We were happy, we were blessed – which we still are, because we get a lot of help, a lot of support and I’m alive, I’m here. But it’s really stressful because it takes two. We’re partners, we’re a couple and now to see my wife do most of these things when I should be taking care of it, it’s hard.
How to protect yourself from valley fever
The couple is urging residents of affected states — including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — or people visiting those parts of the U.S. to be aware of Valley Fever and get tested if there are symptoms. performance.
Anyone who lives, works or travels in an area where Valley fever fungus grows can inhale the spores of outdoor dust and become infected, the California Department of Public Health warned.
The agency advised staying indoors on windy days and keeping car windows closed when driving through areas where valley fever is common. Avoid yard work, digging or other activities that involve close contact with dirt, it noted. If you can’t avoid dusty places like construction sites, wearing an N95 mask can help protect against the spores.
Leon, who doesn’t know where or how he was exposed to the fungus, said he was surprised that few people knew about Valley Fever where he lives — although central California is a hot spot for the disease.
“We want more people to know about this and protect themselves,” he said.