Local Journalism Initiative
‘Stay vigilant, not scared,’ says local who recovered from COVID-19
Tom found himself standing in a crowded Florida bar on a Monday night wondering why it was so busy.
His friends quickly informed him it was the beginning of spring break in the U.S. and Tom’s mind immediately went back to the news that just came out about the seriousness of COVID-19.
All it would take was one person in the crowd to have it and pass it on, he thought.
“Spring break was in full swing, I was like ‘okay, this is a recipe for disaster,’” Tom said.
Tom, who was in Florida to visit friends and not for spring break, knew then that the chances of the virus spreading to him were fairly high and he now believes that is exactly where he became infected with COVID-19.
The following day, on March 10, Tom flew back to Canada. He already had a phlegmy cough and a cold while travelling, but he decided to take his temperature regularly before he was set to go back to work that same week.
While the 14-day isolation period didn’t become mandatory until March 12, Tom decided to self-isolate at a friend’s house anyway in order to avoid his own immuno-compromised family members.
The first signs of slight symptoms were tricky to differentiate between what might be COVID-19 and what could just be the flu that was going around at the time. It wasn’t until March 12, two days after his return, that he noticed his temperature going up slightly.
His boss told him to stay home after he explained that he had a very mild fever. Then Tom called 811 and he was told he qualified for a COVID-19 test; someone would call him within two to three days to get tested.
On March 15, five days after his return, the local clinic phoned him back and directed him to drive to the Hinton Healthcare Centre. A nurse swabbed him through his car window in the parking lot.
“The nose swab was a pretty intense feeling, it was a mixture of wanting to sneeze, very ticklish, but almost on the verge of being painful,” Tom said.
He asked for one face mask and was told it would take three to five days to get his results back. Since Tom’s experience was so early on, testing timelines have changed drastically. He returned to the same friend’s house where he had been staying and continued isolating.
Online streaming, reading, journaling, and games kept him occupied during isolation.
“I don’t really get bored– I always find stuff to do even if I’m just locked up in my room,” he said.
With some medical training and an interest in learning about COVID-19, he used some of his time to read up on studies of the virus.
“I like learning about that stuff and I did self-educate and even viruses in general are pretty interesting things,” he said.
Tom tried not to stress about the situation and focused on the things he could do to prevent the spread, especially for the family whose house he was living in.
Even though he used a spare bedroom, the bathroom was shared and he had to make sure to be very cautious. He walked through the house with a mask covering his face and avoided coughing along the way from his bedroom to the bathroom. Whenever he touched anything, he immediately wiped it down with a disinfectant wipe he carried around. Tom did everything in his power to make sure nobody else would get sick while he waited for his results to come back.
His cough eventually turned into a dry cough, but he never felt weak and he didn’t have any difficulty breathing or have chest pains like medical professionals had suggested were the regular symptoms.
Even the fever was intermittent, it would come and go and it was very mild, he said.
“My symptoms were so mild that if this COVID thing wasn’t going around I would have probably still gone to work. Something told me no, just stay home and don’t go anywhere. It could’ve been really, really bad if I went out,” he said.
It wasn’t until he spoke to his friends in Florida who had all started showing severe symptoms, that he was convinced he had contracted the virus. Each of them mentioned they lost their sense of smell and taste, which Tom finally realized had also happened to him.
Food hadn’t tasted quite the same since his return, but he previously blamed it on the quality of the canned food he was eating in self-isolation.
“When my friends in the US told me they all lost their sense of smell and taste, for me that was what really set it apart from the flu symptoms. Everybody had a cough, everybody had a cold, everybody had those symptoms, but to me that was what really told me that I had it. I was 90 per cent sure at this point,” he said.
Chocolate didn’t taste like anything, even though his nose wasn’t clogged and he could still breath, he noted.
About eight of his friends in Florida were sick with severe COVID-19 symptoms and had difficulty breathing but it was almost impossible for them to get tested.
His friends received tests for all other possible viruses or diseases, and only after those results came back negative they were given a COVID-19 test, Tom claimed.
“People are going around not knowing they have it,” he said.
While Tom waited for his own results, the friend he had been living with also got tested for COVID-19.
Six days after Tom’s test he called Alberta Health Services (AHS) to ask about his results. On March 22, twelve days after his return to Canada, he received news that he tested positive for COVID-19, while the friend he was living with tested negative.
AHS explained the process of what would happen next, including taking all his information and documenting every place he had been for contact tracing.
They called every person he was in contact with and took down his airline information and seat number in order to inform anyone on that flight. Tom said the process wasn’t so bad since he was able to avoid going anywhere after returning to Canada.
“You never know who you’re going to infect, I was very happy and lucky that I was able to avoid getting people infected,” he said about his experience.
Hinton’s first case of COVID-19 was officially announced on March 23, and comments from worried, concerned, and scared Hinton residents soon followed online.
Most comments voiced concerns about where the person had been and who they had been in contact with.
“I just wanted to tell people that everything was okay, everything is under control. I didn’t go anywhere,” Tom said.
He thought about posting to let everyone know that there are things everyone can do to mitigate and control the spread just by social distancing, and cleaning and wiping everything just as he did as a sick person. But he decided to hold off after reading some negative and angry comments.
“You don’t know what they’ll do or how far they’ll go. I didn’t want to go to a grocery store afterwards and have someone throw me out because they didn’t understand,” Tom said.
Those concerns are why The Hinton Voice respected his wish to remain anonymous, and change his name to Tom for the purposes of this story.
Some comments were written by people who were upset that the Town of Hinton wasn’t sharing anything about the first case, but the truth was that the municipality didn’t have any more information about the first case than the public did, Tom explained.
“This is handled on a provincial scale, and they are doing contact tracing, they are phoning people up who were in contact [with me],” Tom said.
Tom added he is proud of Hinton, seeing as the three confirmed cases have recovered and there have been no other confirmed cases. The family he had been staying with was directed to quarantine for 14 days after their last contact with Tom, so Tom quickly began his search for a place where he could isolate away from them.
He had stayed with his friend’s family for a week and a half at that point, and none of them have shown any symptoms of COVID-19 to date. A friend in Edmonton offered up a place where nobody was staying at the time so Tom could isolate.
“Once you test positive, AHS calls you on a daily basis to check up on you and see if you’re OK and ask what your symptoms are. By the fifth day they said ‘you’re good to go, you’ve been symptom free,’” Tom said.
When he received his results, five days prior, he was already almost symptom-free.
“They say that about 10 days after onset of symptoms, a person, if their symptoms aren’t there anymore or if their symptoms are already going away, that they’re not contagious anymore,” explained Tom.
He added that while a person can still test positive after symptoms have gone away, tests have shown that the virus isn’t contagious any longer. As long as a person isn’t still heavily symptomatic, AHS told Tom that it was OK.
He returned home to his family but he cautiously watched his immuno-compromised family members for any signs, even though he was assured he was no longer contagious. His family has remained healthy since he moved back home in late March.
“On the plus side, right now I’m immune, for how long we don’t know yet, we just have to wait and see how long that lasts for tests to come out and find out,” he said
AHS contacted Tom again in late April to ask if he would donate his blood to a research team that’s testing antibody kits for the province.
“I agreed and I gave my blood to the clinic here,” Tom said.
Tom praised the municipal and provincial governments for their work and how they are communicating updates.
He said this pandemic is new for everyone, and the government has made changes on a daily basis. While testing was slow at the beginning, the capacity to test people since then has grown immensely.
“People for the most part are listening. Some are more scared than others. They don’t have to be scared. Stay vigilant, not scared,” Tom said.
New COVID tests prove more effective, quicker
The way people are being tested for COVID-19 in Hinton changed nearly one month ago from the standard practice nose swab to now collecting a throat sample.
In mid-April Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL) provided updated recommendations for COVID-19 specimen collection and clarified instructions for the use of various types of swabs.
A nose swab can either be a deep nasal swab or deeper nasopharyngeal (NP) swab.
To manage swab inventory, increase test volumes, and reduce variability in the quality of the samples coming into the lab on the deep nasal swabs, swabbing the NP or the throat has become recommended standard, rather than the nose.
The lab confirmed that a throat sample collected on the appropriate swabs is effective at detecting the virus, stated Kerry Williamson from Alberta Health Services (AHS).
The time from when a positive result is determined in the lab, to the time that patient is notified has become a much faster process than it was back in March when testing was done on the first person confirmed with COVID-19 in Hinton.
Early testing took as long as seven days to get results. Currently it takes less than 24 hours for a positive patient to be contacted with the result, Williamson said.
People coming in for a test are simply instructed to drive to one of the testing sites where they are swabbed by a public health nurse through their car window. Once they’ve been swabbed, they then drive home and self-isolate until they get their results back and receive further instruction from AHS.
Williamson explained that these sites are more convenient for those being tested as there is no need to enter a clinic, and there is no need for patients to don personal protective equipment.
The drive-through system eliminates time spent in a waiting room, reducing risk of public transmission, and increases capacity for testing.