Mike Kelly

 Carrying a cup of from the school's Coffee Connections Cafe, U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly tours the Tomahawk Tees screenprinting business run by the entrepreneurship class at West Middlesex Jr. Sr. High School during a tour of the school district Friday morning.

BUTLER – Even though talk of a new, more transmittable brand of influenza was already dominating the news on the week of March 16 and Pennsylvania had already closed the state’s public schools, U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly didn’t think his illness was anything more than seasonal flu.

“The normal thing this time of year is that we’re used to getting the flu,” said Kelly, R-16, Butler, whose district includes Mercer, Crawford, Lawrence, Erie and part of Butler counties.

The five-term congressman said he was feeling extremely tired with chills and muscle cramps, and – in what may have turned out to be a key indicator – a loss of appetite, and taste and smell senses.

The loss of taste and smell wasn’t regarded as a symptom of COViD-19, the illness associated with the coronavirus until about a week ago.

But even though Kelly didn’t think his illness was anything other than the flu, his wife, Victoria, urged him to see a doctor, which he said was fortunate.

“My wife said, ‘I think this is more serious than you think,’ “ Kelly said.

Kelly’s office announced March 27 that he had tested positive for COVID-19. As someone living with Type 2 diabetes – Kelly is active with the U.S. House of Representatives Diabetes Caucus – he is in a risk group for serious complications from the illness.

However, Kelly said he is recovering in quarantine with his wife at their home in Butler, and still has another week to go in isolation. He began reaching out last week, resuming as many of his duties as could be performed over the telephone.

For someone used to interaction, as a congressman and before that as owner of a auto sales dealership, Kelly said the isolation has been the most difficult part of life in the age of COVID-19.

“Most of us are used to working,” he said. “Even if you’re sick, you get up and go to work.”

Friends and neighbors have made grocery store runs for the Kellys, although they have had to get used to being separated from their children and 10 grandchildren.

But Kelly said he realizes the importance of not exposing others to the illness.

“For me, the big problem is being isolated,” he said. “As much as I don’t feel good right now, you want to make sure you don’t transmit it to anybody else.”

Kelly said he credits Tim Butler, district director, for maintaining the congressional office’s services, even while the physical offices themselves are closed. Among the most important matters is guiding individuals and businesses through particulars of the federal CARES – Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security – Act, also known as the COVID-19 stimulus package.

The package includes provisions for federally guaranteed loans for small businesses in order to maintain employment. Under the federal regulations, companies can borrow money and have some or all the loans forgiven if they keep employees on the payroll.

Kelly said supporting the small businesses is important, not just as an economic need, but to safeguard the health of people who might be facing joblessness.

“There’s a lot of concerns,” he said. “It becomes a mental concern out there.”

While the pandemic is expected to disrupt activities for weeks, perhaps months to come, Kelly said he’s seeing something else, something more positive.

He’s seeing people reaching out – figuratively speaking, while maintaining social distancing – to help one another, through support of food banks and other volunteer actions.

And in Kelly’s view, it comes down to one thing.

“We are a faith-based country,” he said. “At a certain point, we have to look to God.”

Follow Eric Poole on Facebook and Twitter @HeraldEricPoole. Email him at epoole@sharonherald.com