Buffy Riley needs to test negative for COVID-19 twice before returning to work.
Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley returned from working as a nurse in a New York hospital to her home in Hayward on April 23. Riley tested positive for COVID-19 the following day and is recovering from the illness as she lives alone at a cabin north of Hayward. (Photo provided)

After 3 weeks in New York City, Buffy remains at a Hayward cabin, needing to test negative for COVID-19 twice before returning to work 

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in an ongoing series of stories profiling Buffy Riley and her three weeks working as a nurse in the center of America’s coronavirus outbreak. See below for links to the previous stories in the series.

One week after she was admitted to a Duluth, Minn, hospital as COVID-19 wracked her body, Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley continues her recovery from the illness and eagerly looks forward to the day she can return to her home in Hayward.

Riley, 62, contracted COVID-19 while working as a nurse at a New York hospital treating patients critically ill with the virus. She tested positive for it one day after returning to Wisconsin on April 23.

Riley was admitted to Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center after her doctor recommended doing so because the oxygen level in Riley’s blood was dropping, a sign her illness was worsening. Sometimes, at that stage of COVID-19, patients’ conditions can worsen quickly, and Riley said her doctor wanted her in a hospital setting in case that happened to her. 

Thankfully, Riley said, that didn’t happen. Her oxygen level rose, she said, and after one night at the hospital she was allowed to return to a friend’s cabin north of Hayward, where she is living alone as she recovers. 

“I’m grateful to be feeling as well as I am, to be getting better,” Riley said Monday. 

Riley would like to return to her home, to her husband Matt and to her job as a nurse at Cumberland Memorial Hospital in Barron County. Before that can happen, she must continue her recovery, she said, and be assured she no longer is carrying the virus. 

“My biggest concern now is finding out how I can find out when I’m safe to return to my family and to my work,” Riley said. 

Determining that proved to be problematic, she said. Current protocol in Wisconsin stipulates that people who have tested positive for COVID-19 can return to home and work environments once at least 10 days have passed since a person’s positive test for the virus and after they show no symptoms of the virus for at least 72 hours.

However, the Centers for Disease Control states that in addition to those monitors, the only way to know people are not still carriers even if they longer exhibit symptoms is through two successive negative tests at least 24 hours apart. 

Riley learned that her employer requires two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests before allowing her to return to work. She said she attempted to obtain those tests through the Sawyer County Health Department but was told that was not possible under current state testing guidelines, in part because the state lacks enough testing materials to implement that policy.  

On Monday Riley said she learned Cumberland Memorial Hospital will provide those tests to her. She is unsure when they will happen but said the first could take place as soon as Friday. Learning she can receive the CDC-recommended testing was a relief, she said.  

“If I go back home, and my husband gets this, or I go back to work and a patient gets this, I could never live with myself,” she said.

Riley said she doesn’t blame state officials for not being able to conduct the tests recommended by the CDC. Instead, she points to the federal government’s inability to adequately supply testing materials as a failure to better protect state residents from COVID-19.

“I understand the point of view of the state because they don’t have enough tests,” she said. “The problem is at the federal level.”

Test site administrators have said they lack enough materials to expand testing as fast as Gov. Tony Evers has said he wants to. During a news conference Monday, Evers announced additional measures to boost testing in Wisconsin and urged the federal government to continue to supply more testing capacity. 

Additional testing across Wisconsin “is a key part of getting the state in position to safely and steadily reopen,” Evers said.

Riley backs more testing, saying reopening businesses and other activities before state officials have a better handle on the number of COVID-19 cases is likely to spur many additional illnesses. 

“I’ve seen the awful damage this virus can do to people,” Riley said in reference to her nearly three weeks working in an ICU at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in New York City.      

While Riley said her muscle aches and shortness of breath associated with COVID-19 have improved, a nagging cough persists, along with general fatigue and a loss of taste and smell.

She appreciates the scenic surroundings of the cabin on a small lake where she is staying, and she passes her time reading and taking short walks.

Still, she said she is lonely. Her husband Matt has visited twice. They spent Saturday’s fishing opening casting from a dock, keeping distance from each other. 

“I miss being in my own home,” she said. “But if I’ve been careful for this long, I can be really careful for a few more days. 

Links to Earlier Coverage: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7