Marin County health officer shares personal story of surviving COVID-19

As public health officers urge Californians to take COVID-19 seriously, one has special insight.

Marin County's Dr. Matt Willis is himself a survivor, stricken by the virus last month. 

"I'm feeling much better, it's been two weeks since I've been back in the saddle and feeling much better every day," Willis said Thursday at the county Emergency Operations Center in San Rafael.

Since returning to work, his days are a blur of meetings, calls, and decisions.

But Willis embraces all of it, after being knocked flat for three weeks. 

"I realized that I had really underestimated the power and unpredictability of this virus," said Willis.

He started feeling ill a few days after appearing with other county health officers, declaring the first Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place.

It was unprecedented at the time, and followed soon after by a state order.  

After Willis tested positive, he went into isolation at home, and in a Facebook message, described his symptoms as mild: fever, cough, and body aches.  

But within a few days, they escalated, as his fever rose and he experienced weakness and shortness of breath.

"We are surrounded by unknowns, and each day there were different symptoms," said Willis, describing numb hands, nausea, loss of taste and smell, even discolored toes that appeared frostbitten.

"There is a lot we don't know about COVID-19 and that lends humility to decision-making and makes us cautious," he says now. 

Willis' personal experience can't help but influence his perspective as a public health officer.

"I was Marin's 39th confirmed case," he notes.

As of April 30, the county has 237 cases and 13 deaths. 

Willis is among 178 people who have recovered.  

"I didn't expect to be as unique as I am, in this situation, we did expect to see a lot more cases," he acknowledges. 

But the fact that the feared hospital surge didn't materialize, he says, shouldn't create complacency. 

"We really have saved lives in this collective action we took," said Willis, "and I hope we feel reassured we have a lot of control over this if we act together." 

Willis was in bed for two weeks, isolated from his family in the same house. 

"I was upstairs in our bedroom, Face-timing our kids," he recalls, "and my son celebrated his 10th birthday while I was in isolation and I was able to give him a hug two weeks after that." 

Looking back, his worst moment came ten days into the illness, when his blood-oxygen dropped low enough Willis went to the hospital. 

"Saying goodbye to my wife there, and going into the ER and not knowing which way that would go, I knew it might be a while before I saw my family and that was the hardest time." 

But his 4-hour visit, including a chest X-ray and lab work, resulted in his return home in the care of his wife, also a physician. Willis has new awareness of how helpless home-bound patients are.

They are the majority, with only five percent of those infected being treated at hospitals. 

"Under that tip of the iceberg are a whole lot of people really sick at home who also need our support," said Willis.   

He notes that can be as simple as a home-cooked meal to ease some of the burden for caregivers. 

"One of the silver linings of this for me, was seeing how people came together to support our family," said Willis.  

Today, he is fully recovered, except for some tightness in his chest, and a tendency to get winded bicycling with his young son.

But the routines of daily life have new meaning. 

"Being with my kids at the breakfast table, I appreciate it more, even the bickering that's happening with the shelter in place," Willis joked. 

He hopes that by sharing his personal experience, people who are frustrated by the public health restrictions will realize they are worth it. 

"My fear is that people will feel falsely reassured by all the success we've had and not recognize that this illness is real and it's part of our environment, said Willis. 

"I was spared a more severe outcome, but it's something we all need to take seriously."

Debora Villalon is a reporter forKTVU.  Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU