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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — For one, it started with becoming short of breath at work. The other got a tickle in his throat and thought it was from insulation in the house he was working on.

But both ended up sidelined from their jobs as HEMSI paramedics because they ultimately tested positive for COVID-19 and spent time recovering from symptoms that they say are nothing like they had ever experienced.

Paramedics David Drake and Jean Humphrey spoke Monday along with HEMSI CEO Jon Howell in an effort to make sure families act responsibly as Christmas approaches.

“The importance of following the guidelines has been established, and they’re more important now than ever,” Howell said.

Humphrey and Drake recounted their cases Monday.

Humphrey said one day in mid-August she became short of breath while working and was immediately taken to a hospital, where she was given an albuterol inhaler and a steroid shot. After that she went home, where she stayed in a guest room and family left meals on a table outside the door to avoid contact.

By day two she didn’t have the strength to get out of bed and said she didn’t even want to bother looking at her phone.

“It’s not a joke,” she said. “It’s real and it will put you down.”

Drake became sick in mid-November. The tickle he felt in his throat turned into all of the symptoms of COVID-19 within 24 hours. He said one of the most important things he wants people to know is that COVID-19 is nothing like the flu.

“I would liken it to being tortured,” Drake said. “Just in terms of body pain, it’s very excruciating.”

Both Drake and Humphrey are back at work, although in terms of recovery, Drake says he feels like he’s running at about 90 percent of normal and still gets fatigued occasionally. But other HEMSI workers have been sidelined. Howell said as of Monday there were 10 positive cases and several others quarantining, meaning about 7 percent of the HEMSI work force was out of commission.

HEMSI workers have begun getting vaccinated, and Howell said he expects every employee that wants it will be able to have a shot by sometime in January. They also have plenty of personal protective equipment to deal with potential COVID-19 patients on calls. But one of the problems they say they’re running into is people who call 911 and aren’t honest about their symptoms.

“It doesn’t change how we treat you,” Drake said. “It doesn’t change your destination; you can choose whichever destination you want to go to. In fact, it will help us treat you better.”