‘I didn’t understand the whole fuss:’ First person treated for COVID-19 in Utah looks back a year later

ST. GEORGE — Even a year later, Mark Jorgensen is still grappling with what transpired after he found out he contracted COVID-19.  

St. George resident Mark Jorgensen, who was the first person treated for COVID-19 in Utah, in a Zoom call on Feb. 28, 2021. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

As far as he was concerned, he didn’t feel any different. Yet the St. George resident was being treated in a special isolation room at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray after being taken there in a motor escort worthy of a president.

And when he was released, he returned home at a time kept secret with the same presidential escort. While he had no symptoms, Jorgensen was worth all the fuss – he was the first person to be treated in Utah for COVID-19. 

“I felt fine the whole time,” Jorgensen said last week as he marked a year since he and his wife, Jerri, contracted the virus after aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship during a tour of Asia. “I didn’t understand the whole fuss.”

During the time when when the Jorgensens and another St. George couple were stranded for more than a month on the Diamond Princess after passengers and crew members came down with the virus, was largely when COVID-19 entered most Americans’ vocabularies last February. 

Thursday marked one year since the moment the COVID-19 pandemic became real for many, after Jorgenson’s beloved Utah Jazz were forced to cancel their game in Oklahoma City just before tip-off after two players were infected with the virus, which ultimately led to the suspension of the NBA season.

Mark Jorgensen receiving a delivery of Cheesecake Factory food sent in to him on March 4, 2020 inside his isolated room at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. | Photo courtesy Mark Jorgensen

Since then, there have been 27,211 COVID-19 infections in Southern Utah, more than 1,000 hospitalized and 238 people who died, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

Jerri and Mark Jorgensen don’t actually count in those official numbers as they contracted the virus outside of Utah – March 21 will mark the one-year anniversary of when the first infection in Southern Utah was confirmed

But when historians look back at the COVID-19 pandemic decades from now, the Jorgensens will forever be the first residents of Southern Utah to be infected with the virus and Mark Jorgensen will be the first person who was treated for it in Utah.

He is still coming to grips with his place in history, mainly because he said he is amazed COVID-19 is still something being talked about on a daily basis a year later. 

“I expected this to be like a swine flu,” he said, adding that he admits to being, “in that camp that scratches my head and wonders who to believe.”

“I’m amazed how long it’s lasted.”

Jerri Jorgensen got infected first on the cruise ship and exhibited some mild symptoms. She ended up recovering in Japan and actually ended up home before her husband did. 

Mark Jorgensen ended up being the first COVID-19 patient for Dr. Todd Vento, infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare. Vento said the lessons learned from Jorgensen helped himself and other doctors in Utah with the thousands of COVID-19 patients in Utah that came after him.

“You have to give credit to Mark. We didn’t intend to make him the guinea pig but we learned a lot from him,” Vento said.

That included both the time a person should be in quarantine after infection from what was then a brand new virus, as well as the fact that individuals without symptoms could quarantine without being held in an isolated, negative-pressure room.

“That was the breakthrough and unfortunately, Mark had to live it,” Vento said. 

Mark and Jerri Jorgensen seen during their Asia trip on Jan. 31, 2020 at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan. | Photo courtesy Mark Jorgensen, St. George News

While Jorgensen had to spend 11 days in an isolated room and an additional 13 days under state quarantine at home, a person diagnosed now with what Jorgensen had – a positive test without symptoms – would just have to isolate at home for 10 days and not need to be hospitalized.

But while he experienced no symptoms when he had the virus, he still deals with after effects of the virus one year later.

While he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a “long-hauler” – people who deal with lingering effects of COVID-19 – he said he is convinced what he calls a “memory fog” and a pinched nerve in one of his eyes is a result of the virus.

“I may not have skated as free from effects like I thought I did,” he said. 

He added that as soon as COVID-19 was past the couple, they got busy living again. Both have continued with their work running the Desert Solace recovery center that they co-founded. And Jorgensen said his wife has experienced no lingering effects from the virus and continues her addiction to bike riding that makes her a common site on St. George’s many bike paths. 

That riding love had him worried about making the Zoom interview with St. George News and other media. 

Jerri Jorgensen “took a tumble,” he said, during a morning ride as the Jorgensens were in Costa Rica on their first trip overseas since their fateful sail on the Diamond Princess.

Nothing serious, “sore but fine,” he said, adding that there’s little that can keep them down. 

“Nothing is going to stop us. That’s our philosophy.”

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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