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'I should be immune by now': Vancouver woman believes she's had COVID-19 at least twice
VANCOUVER -- Shilan Garousi can't remember what normal feels like.
And it's not because of physical distancing, reading the nonstop COVID-19 headlines, or self-isolating at home with her extended family.
"I should be immune by now," Garousi tells me as we stand a full five metres apart in her backyard. "I'm fine. I'm healthy."
Except she isn't.
Garousi believes she's been infected with COVID-19 at least twice, if not three times.
She's had positive tests twice, and she's been diagnosed twice.
But it turns out, for Garousi, it's not that simple.
She tells me she first developed symptoms in mid-March. When it escalated, she called 811, then ended up in urgent care.
Her very first test, doctors told her, was a false positive. So she was asked to return 72 hours later for three more tests. The results: positive, negative, and inconclusive.
From there, she was taken to hospital, where a chest X-ray showed she had pneumonia and spotting on her lungs, she says.
A doctor diagnosed her with COVID-19, she says, and gave her antibiotics to treat her lung condition.
Garousi says she made a full recovery within a week. And then her 12-year-old daughter and niece, who lives with Garousi, got sick.
Both were diagnosed with COVID-19 at BC Children's Hospital, Garousi says.
"Of course I was the one feeling like a hero," Garousi recalls about those days in early April. "I (had) recovered, so I should be the one in close contact with them."
But within days, her symptoms were back. Coughing, trouble breathing, and a fever. Garousi is convinced COVID-19 was back.
"For those who might be skeptical of your story, why are you so sure?" I ask.
"Because I showed all the symptoms," she says. "It was exactly the same. The first time (the worst of it) lasted seven days. The second time, four days."
It's unclear exactly why Garousi wasn't tested the second time she says she developed those symptoms.
By the time Garousi felt well again, her sister had fallen ill, and on April 18, tested positive.
Then, this past weekend, Garousi says, she felt those uncomfortable and familiar feelings coming back for a third time, six weeks after she experienced her first symptoms.
This time, she went for a COVID-19 test. And on Tuesday, it came back positive.
Dr. Brian Conway, a virologist and infectious disease specialist, called Garousi's case "more the exception than the rule."
Conway told CTV News that it's possible she might have suffered a relapse, or potentially have been re-infected after recovering.
He indicated that with the flu, it's possible to get infected again by different strains, which is one of the reasons why the annual flu vaccine contains more than one strain.
Conway's experience shows some viruses change more than others. And he said it's "early days" for COVID-19.
"It's not going to be a straightforward story of 'There's one kind of COVID-19, you get it, you get better, and you can't get it again,'" Conway, president and CEO of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said.
"It's not that simple."
Conway's advice: to do what Garousi did not.
Get tested to see if you can be considered "recovered" and get tested if your symptoms return.
He also advised patients maintain physical distancing and the usual hand-washing and good-hygiene protocols, because recovery is not yet a guarantee of immunity.
Canada's public health officials have also widely acknowledged there are still many unknowns when it comes to the novel coronavirus and immunity.
"We just don't know what level of protection, how strong that protection is, and how long it might last," said Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam earlier this week.
Meanwhile, B.C.'s Centre for Disease Control is currently evaluating 17 different serology, or antibody, tests for accuracy. Health officials hope to find one that will help them start screening COVID-19 survivors, and the broader public, for antibodies.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, has acknowledged there have been local cases where a patient's symptoms have lasted longer than the benchmark 10 days.
"We found that people would be negative, and then positive, and then negative, and then positive, and then sometimes went on for some time," Henry said last week.
But she also indicated that current research suggests patients that make it through the worst of their symptoms once are unlikely to infect others going forward, even if they suffer what might be considered a relapse.
A study of at least 180 patients in South Korea who tested positive after they had officially recovered found no cases where those patients transmitted the virus to others.
"We're still learning a lot," Henry said. "So we have to try and keep on top of all the different combinations and permutations that happen."
Garousi acknowledges her case isn't clear-cut, and even with the tests and diagnosis, it's possible she didn't have COVID-19 back in mid-March.
Still, she says Vancouver Coastal Health is now closely monitoring her family, and she hopes that local researchers will take a closer look at her story, in the hope that it can shed light on the tricky question of immunity.
"I thought I would be immune and I thought I could help the community," Garousi says. "When are we going to go back to normal?"