‘Going viral’ with COVID-19: One UW-Madison student’s unexpected rise to fame amid a global pandemic
UW-Madison senior Amy Shircel’s descriptive tweets about her day-to-day struggles after catching the novel coronavirus gained national and international attention for showing how young populations are just as susceptible in catching the virus.Image By: Courtesy of Amy Shircel
Laying bedridden and alone in her Madison apartment one March evening, Amy Shircel believed she was on the brink of death.
Days after contracting the COVID-19 virus — suffering from a headache, shallow breathing and severe dehydration capped off by a 103-degree fever — the UW-Madison senior prepared herself for the worst.
“I thought I was going to die,” Shircel said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to fall asleep and I’m not going to wake up because I’m just too sick.’”
After multiple trips to the emergency room and experiencing around two weeks-worth of acute symptoms, she posted a series of tweets documenting her journey in dealing with the novel coronavirus.
With 292,000 likes and 114,000 retweets, Shircel’s story garnered national and international attention as both small-scale and blue-chip news outlets flooded her account with interview requests.
Despite the mounting media coverage and her original intentions to alert her Twitter followers of the dangers associated with the virus, Shircel’s message stayed constant in dispelling the notion COVID-19 only affects the elderly and individuals ailing from pre-existing health conditions — and accentuates the potential consequences for younger generations.
Living with COVID-19
Shircel embarked on a spring break trip with her friends to Portugal in early March. An hour into their flight, the U.S. government imposed a travel ban on most European countries, prompting her to book the first flight home.
Following a brief stop in Lisbon and layover in Amsterdam, Shircel landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. While she could not be certain, Shircel believed she caught the virus in the days leading up to or during her travels.
“I would love to know,” Shircel said. “It could have been anywhere in the airport. It could’ve been anywhere in my hometown, in Madison, in Europe.”
Amid the heightening fears surrounding the novel coronavirus, Shircel took self-quarantining seriously, but she also approached the virus with light-hearted humor.
Shircel was “not welcome” at her permanent residence in Kenosha. Her mother recently underwent heart surgery, and she returned to Madison to avoid potentially spreading the virus to her household.
“I was liking jokes about it on Twitter. I was making jokes about it myself,” Shircel said. “I kind of felt like the invincible 20-year-old that was not going to be harmed by [COVID-19] in the long-run.”
On March 15, however, Shircel’s luck changed — as did her opinion on the virus.
She felt fatigued and developed a cough and fever. Shircel called University Health Services and received a test the next day. However, the progressions got worse.
The third or fourth day, Shircel’s nausea turned into non-stop vomiting, and she could not fall asleep for the next week. As her fever continued to climb, she shivered under five blankets, including an additional heated blanket, and willed herself to close her eyes.
After repeatedly waking up drenched in sweat — to the point she had to change clothes — Shircel resorted to sleeping on towels.
"I couldn't get out of bed. I would crawl to the bathroom to throw up," Shircel said. "I would crawl to go fill up my water bottle because my legs were so weak."
Finally, on the sixth day , Shircel became so dehydrated she dialed 911. Riding in an ambulance for the first time as a patient, paramedics in full personal protective equipment handed her off to doctors and nurses wearing hazmat suits at the hospital.
No visitors were allowed.
With a “big sign” hanging over the door to her room prohibiting individuals from entering, Shircel lay in isolation, too weak to talk to her parents on the phone.
“It’s really lonely and it’s dehumanizing when no one wants to come near you or touch you,” Shircel said. “There’s really not a lot that health care workers can do for you. There’s no shot, there’s no pill that they can give you to feel better.”
The hospital discharged Shircel the same day she was admitted; however, she returned to the emergency room a few days later with no improvements to her symptoms.
Shircel said the worst part of the hospital was not her stay, rather the process of leaving its premises. When she asked hospital workers how she would get home, employees would “just shrug” and recommended ordering an Uber, according to Shircel.
“[It] was crazy to me because they wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole, but they would tell me to go ride in someone’s Uber with just a face mask,” Shircel said.
After 12 days, she called her family and told them she could no longer take care of herself. Shircel’s father picked her up and took her home to Kenosha where she continues to convalesce.
Unexpectedly ‘going viral’
Shircel never anticipated receiving such a strong response from her tweets. She originally shared her experience over social media to alert her friends and followers to take the COVID-19 situation more seriously.
“I had friends who were on spring break. I had friends who were going to their friend’s houses, going to their boyfriends’s houses and were thinking they were taking it seriously,” Shircel said. “But in reality, I knew that they were being a danger to spread the virus as potential carriers.”
And then a media onslaught ensued, as Facebook and popular Instagram accounts reposted her tweets and news organizations reached out to her over social media for comment.
In total, 23 million Twitter accounts saw Shircel’s tweet, including seven million “interactions,” and one million views on her profile.
Shircel recently appeared on ABC News’ 20/20 special. She just recorded an episode of Dr. Phil and interviewed with TMZ, The Terry Show in Australia and The Wall Street Journal. Cosmopolitan Magazine also published an article.
She spoke with KARE TV in Minnesota and Spectrum News in Wisconsin, and Shircel said she will have additional interviews with ABC News and China TV.
Even with the unprecedented media exposure — receiving articles from all over the world about her story and support across various platforms — Shircel remains humble to the public’s response to her impactful story.
“I’m getting all this attention but in reality, I’m in quarantine in my parents' basement. It’s really not super glamorous,” Shircel said. “Millions of people have read my story. It’s kind of daunting, but I’m also very flattered. I’m glad to get the word out, hopefully in a positive way.”
However, not all the feedback has been positive. Individual accounts accused Shircel of being a “political pawn” used by Democrats and attributed her weight and dietary preferences as the underlying reasons she contracted the novel coronavirus.
“You really have to take it with a grain of salt because anytime you have a tweet or post [that goes] viral like that you have to expect trolls and that are sitting behind their keyboards looking to be a hater for someone,” Shircel said.
Ultimately, Shircel’s cautionary tale underscores the greater lesson that COVID-19 remains indiscriminate of age and can inflict fatal harm on younger people.
Shircel advocated for empathy and selflessness at this time by being mindful of loved ones and protecting the overall community at-large.
“Even if you think you’re healthy, even if you think you’re invincible, you can be like me and feel like you could almost die from it,” Shircel said. “I think my message is that you should be scared for yourself because I wouldn’t wish my experience with coronavirus on my worst enemy.”Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter