Cold or COVID? My uncomfortable 14-day journey
This artist's rendering shows a patient undergoing a swab for a COVID-19 diagnostic test. (Source: The New England Journal of Medicine ©2020)
VANCOUVER -- I started feeling sick on a Tuesday. Sniffles and a sneezy feeling, nothing to worry about, I told myself. A summer cold. Perhaps just run down from a jam-packed family road trip, and my body struggling to adjust back to the early hours on the morning show. Pre-pandemic, I would have dazzled my bosses with my work ethic, and continued to do my job in spite of being a little under-the-weather. But I’ve reported on Dr. Henry’s advice many times: If you feel sick, stay home. So I felt justified in calling in sick the next day. Not only would I be hailed a hero by my co-workers for doing the right thing, I’d be back up and running before you’d know it!
The list of COVID-19 symptoms is long. According the the BC Centre for Disease Control, it can include fever, difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, fatigue. Nestled in there is "runny nose." An unassuming trait many of us experience with allergies or, um… age. That runny nose and sneezy feeling was just enough to be flagged by my employer, and I was immediately told not to come to work for 14 days. Sorry, company policy.
I felt singled out at first, frustrated because I didn’t FEEL like I could have COVID. After all, I had been keeping a log of my temperature, and was cool as a cucumber. I’m also a mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing, social-distancing, law-abiding citizen. I don’t take risks and my bubble is relatively small. I wash my hands and so do my kids. Sure, we had just travelled to the fringe of the B.C. border to have a short visit with my Alberta family. But we kept to ourselves, stayed in our own cabin, and only breathed the pure Rocky Mountain air of the Great Outdoors. I thought there must be some mistake as I blew my nose with a defiant honk! My annoyance turned to anxiety as I pondered, if I could catch a cold - could I catch Covid? Maybe one moment of letting my guard down was just enough.
My doctor's office directed me to the self-assessment tool on the B.C. government website. A series of questions to advise you on your next steps. Where have you been? What have you been up to? What symptoms are you experiencing? Once I submitted my answers, a forlorn cartoon figure holding a thermometer popped up on my screen with a relieving diagnosis: You don’t appear to have symptoms of COVID-19. Knew it! I snapped a photo of the caption for proof, and moved onto Netflix. Nothing to worry about here. A few hours later, I decided to take the self-assessment a second time. Same questions, same answers, but the result was different. For unknown reasons, the cartoon figure this time was slightly more cheerful, casually leaning out of an open window, holding a mug of steaming hot liquid - but the caption read: Please get a COVID-19 test and self-isolate. After a few hours of rocking myself in a dark corner of my own mind, I decided the only way to know for sure was to take the test.
If you've never had to get a COVID test, you likely wouldn't have a clue where to go. I was told by a co-worker about a drive-through site, but opted for a testing clinic closer to my home. I called first thing in the morning for an afternoon appointment, and arrived a few minutes early. Four other people were waiting in line outside, standing on socially distanced sidewalk markings and all wearing masks. It looked like it could be a line for Zara. After a 15-minute wait, a nurse’s head popped outside the door of the clinic and called my name to come in.
I was in the clinic for no longer than 10 minutes. A form was signed, the nurse gave me some instructions, and I nervously pumped from the hand sanitizer bottle placed in front of her laptop. She unwrapped the sterile swab she’d be using for the test, and informed me the one they use now is smaller than the ones used previously. I didn’t know how that was possible, because the swab she was holding up was HUGE. Now, I'm a tad embarrassed to tell you that early on in the pandemic, I thought the main reason why the swabs were long is because it would allow the nurses to keep a bit of distance while conducting a test. After all, You can never be too careful when it comes to Covid. Since then, I've come to learn the length is what's needed to reach the impossible depth of one's nasal cavity. The test is most effective when the sample is from WAY IN THERE. To illustrate this point, allow me describe my test.
The nurse asked if I had a nostril preference. I didn't, so she moved in on my right. She was gentle and clear, describing each step. As the swab entered my nose, she warned me that it’s not painful, but most people find it an “uncomfortable experience." That's a good way to describe it, although I would add the words “THE MOST” and “OF MY LIFE." Once the swab reached the bottom of my seemingly endless nasal cavity, she rolled the end of the swab between her fingers, so that the cotton tip twisted inside. She did this for about 10 seconds before retreating quickly. Apparently she didn't find what she was looking for, and needed to try the other nostril. This gave me a few seconds to brace myself and take a breath before the swab entered my left. In my mind, I was wishing I’d told her to try the left nostril in the first place. It’s definitely my bigger nostril, and truth be told, has always been the bigger mucus producer. This time the swab was twisting into what must have been millimetres from where my brain should be. Again, not painful, but intensely uncomfortable. My eyes watered and I struggled to stifle a sneeze. Another accurate description I heard recently is that burning feeling when water gets inside your nose when swimming, except in this case you can’t hack and cough because someone is holding a stick in your head. It must have been a good 15 seconds before she pulled the swab from the swampy depths of old lefty. The mission was a success.
I was told it would take two days to get my results back, and during that time, I had a lot of time to think about the impact the results would have. A positive COVID result would have a domino effect: My children, their father and his partner and children, people I work with, close friends and neighbours. All of them would need to monitor for symptoms or even self-isolate. I was worried about the stigma associated with being COVID-positive, that everyone would assume I hadn't been following health orders, that I'd been careless, "speaking moistly," that I put others in jeopardy. My mind also wandered to a darker place, fearing hospitalization if my health took a turn for the worse, not being able to see my children, faced with the agony of being alone. It was an uneasy two days to say the least.
I was informed I would only get a phone call from Vancouver Coastal Health my COVID test came back positive. A negative result would get sent to my family doctor. I opted to receive a text message alert with my negative result, and it indeed arrived two days later. Whew. So that settles that, now back to Netflix. But as I nursed my stubborn cold, and self isolated for another eight days before returning to work, an understanding of why staying home when you're sick is imperative. I'd feel awful if everyone in my workplace had to self-isolate and get a COVID test because of me.
I'd feel worse if I'd passed along an insidious virus. This isn't the time for work heroes, even if it's just a summer cold. Because our COVID cases are on the rise, and winter is coming.