Deborah Napier first noticed something was wrong while making dinner last Wednesday evening.

The 67-year-old Portland resident was peeling and cutting up an onion, when she realized that her eyes were not watering as they usually do.

“I smelled the onion thinking I had a bad onion and I could smell nothing,” Napier said. “Then I started trying to smell other things. I couldn’t smell anything – the garlic, the trash, my dog. Nothing. My sense of smell just instantly disappeared.”

Napier said she did some online research and found that loss of smell and taste were believed to be early symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that has upended lives around the globe.

After her granddaughter came down with a fever on Saturday, Napier called her doctor to see if she should be tested. She explained what had happened, including her granddaughter’s fever and her travel the weekend of March 7 to New York to attend her brother’s funeral. She was tested at a drive-through testing site in South Portland.

After she tested negative for the flu, nurses inserted a 6-inch swab deep into her nasal passage to get a sample for the coronavirus test and sent her home.


On Tuesday morning, she got the results: She has COVID-19.

She said her granddaughter likely has strep throat.

Public health officials say the most common types of symptoms for COVID-19 are a fever, shortness of breath and a cough. But emerging research is beginning to highlight the loss of smell and taste as well.

When asked Monday, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said more research is needed to better understand what percentage of people with COVID-19 lose their senses of smell and taste.

“I saw some of that research as well. It’s interesting. It’s early. It’s intriguing,” Shah said. “Even if it bears out to be the case, what percentage of everybody out there with COVID-19 would be accounted for by individuals whose first symptom is loss of taste? We’re not sure yet.”

Claire Hopkins, president of the British Rhinological Society, wrote about the loss of smell in COVID-19 patients in a paper published by ENT UK, a professional membership body representing ear, nose and throat surgery and related specialties in the United Kingdom.


Hopkins said two out of every three cases in Germany reportedly had anosmia, or loss of smell, and 30 percent of the cases in South Korea, which is doing widespread testing, reported it as a major symptom.

The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery has recommended testing people who report a loss of smell or taste for the new coronavirus.

Napier said she felt compelled to share her experience so people could know that not everyone who contracts the disease shows the same symptoms, which makes it even more important that people listen to health officials and stay home and practice social distancing.

Her experience also shows that, while older people are clearly at greater risk of serious complications, not everyone over age 65 experiences a severe reaction.

As of Tuesday, she said she only had a slight cough and tired a little easier than usual.

“For me I have no other symptoms,” Napier said.

Napier said that she’s active and exercises regularly. Her doctors told her to remain in isolation for 14 days or until she has no symptoms for at least 72 hours. However, they’re unsure when – or if – her sense of smell and taste might return.

She said her daughter is helping deliver groceries and her neighbors check on her. She keeps in touch with friends through phone calls and video chats. And her dog, Isabella, a poodle mix, keeps her company.

“I’m fortunate,” she said. “I feel quite good.”

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