I’m (Not) Covid Positive
I went to 2020 and all I got was this lousy flu
My summer holiday crashed on the shoals of flu and pandemic.
The health system may have coped with the crisis, but it’s slipping badly on core services.
The coming flu season is fodder for the next social health panic.
Our summer break was not supposed to work out this way.
My wife and I had planned a two week road trip from Vancouver to Calgary to see friends and family.
We had nearly completed day two, a delightfully varied set of tastings at Okanagan wineries, and just as we got out by the lake to stretch our legs, there it was: an uncontrolled body chill.
I could not stop shaking and I was suddenly and overwhelmingly fatigued. That night, I slept poorly, complete with fever and hallucinatory dreams. Had the dreaded pandemic finally come for me?
We made a quick decision: cancel the trip, take a Covid test, and return to quarantine in Vancouver. Our holiday was over.
It was only many days later, in the midst of the worst illness I have had in forty years, that I finally saw my results: I had tested negative (twice) to the dreaded pandemic virus.
Though I had dodged the main bullet, I was still pretty shot up with influenza, picked up ironically at a time of near record low contagion after the end of the flu season. What strange luck!
How Sick Really
I have now had plenty of time, ten straight days in bed, barely strong enough to raise my head but lovingly cared for by my attentive wife, to contemplate the meaning of this disease from the victim’s point of view.
My first thought is: I have been ripped off, burdened with all of the downside of a serious illness and none of the upside.
I thought I might gain a new superpower, immunity against Covid in the future and the ability to go bravely into society, breathing deeply the air of freedom and mixing closely with anyone I chose. I also hoped for a shot at infamy, as the only person in my circles with the war wounds of the pandemic.
It was not to be. I had the boring, and so passé, flu.
But then I thought, what is the real difference between Covid and a bad case of influenza, especially here in BC with its rather tepid version of the pandemic? They are both viruses after all, each with a killer’s reach and a long list of identical symptoms.
The statistics are telling.
For residents of BC, the odds of dying from Covid so far this year are 0.0036%, involving almost 190 victims, compared to the annual flu and pneumonia death rate of 0.0186%, about 900 people in total each year.
That nearly five-fold difference in risk in favor of flu is massively understated, however, since there have been only 7 Covid deaths of people under aged 60. The true mortality risk to children, healthy adults, and non-seniors is vanishingly slight.
Even the odds of picking up the two diseases are different, and that’s after accounting for fairly widespread preventive use of the flu vaccine (covering 42% of the population and with 58% effectiveness) that lowers the possibility of getting that illness.
There were over 6,700 positively tested flu cases in BC this season and around 1 out of 7 were in the 50–64 year old age group (that’s me). By comparison, we had just over 3,000 Covid cases, of which perhaps 1 out of 4 were in that same age bracket.
Based on that rough math, someone like me is about 30% likelier to get the flu here rather than Covid (though most likely to get neither).
And that is exactly what happened: I picked up the much more dangerous and contagious pathogen, initially mistook it for Covid, and then reacted to it in a way that is out of keeping with any other illness I have ever had before.
With these numbers, I started feeling much better about my experience: what I just went through was much more dangerous than today’s pop disease! Maybe I was a hero of sorts.
In it Together
Though I felt mostly alone with my illness, and it truly was only physically affecting me, we now live in a world where we must share the knowledge of our potentially communicable diseases with each other.
There is no health privacy, no way to avoid the fact that others may be implicated in our ill health. The idea of quietly staying in bed, recovering, and then returning to work and play with scarcely a murmur is gone forever.
So, my wife and I entered into the intricate social web one must negotiate if facing the potential threat of pandemic illness.
We retraced our steps going back a week. We contacted everyone we had planned to meet. We cancelled all accommodations, tastings, and restaurant reservations on our trip. We talked to friends and family and warned anyone else who had been in close contact with us. We became amateur epidemiological sleuths, the Sherlock Holmes of our time. We were awesome.
It did us little personal good, of course. People were disappointed but also pleased that we would not be coming to share our viral bounty. Most places gave us refunds, others ignored our pleas. The general tone was one of sympathy and understanding.
My favorite response came from a couple with a B&B who praised us by saying “Thank you for considering us and our small community. If everyone had the same approach as you, we would well and truly be on top of this pandemic”, but could not see their way to returning any portion of a $67 partial refund request. There’s the real world, not the one touted by politicians where “we are all in this together”.
Would anyone go to these lengths to pre- and post-track an illness before this god-awful year? Is this how we must now operate, with every sneeze and snuffle out on public display to be questioned for its lethal potential? Must we be 100% healthy to venture out anywhere in public?
To ask the questions is to understand that this pandemic is as much in our minds as in our bodies. And it is highly likely to remain lodged in our grey matter for a long time to come, even as the actual pandemic fades away.
Health and Service
My summer holiday recap cannot be complete without some observations about our health care sector.
Yes, they are very much kind and valiant workers and we do rely on their expertise to help us through a vulnerable time. But no, they are just like any other poorly functioning bureaucracy, with a greater focus on internal processes and a far lesser interest in diligently serving their customers.
My first point of contact with health professionals was great: a drive-through Covid testing site in Kelowna. The staff there were sympathetic, efficient, and in fine spirits. What they didn’t tell us was that the local processing lab was off-line, leaving my sample to be sent for delayed processing in Vancouver over three days later.
In the interim, my medical condition massively deteriorated: I went from discomfort to chills, aches, cough, fever, nausea, fatigue, and a very mysterious rash. There was no sign of progress, no confirmation of Covid or not, and no guidance on quarantine for me and my wife, so I turned to my GP.
I knew already that a personal visit was impossible, as nearly every doctor in Vancouver had shut their office doors to seeing patients months ago. I attempted an e-visit, an on-line consultation, and was quickly reintroduced to the decrepitude of IT systems in the health sector.
Two timed bookings failed because the app did not properly confirm my appointments (no, it’s not me and some form of technophobia). A third attempt worked and our call was set for 2:10pm. That time came and went with no doctor on the line, as did 2:20pm, 2:30pm, 2:45pm, and 3pm, so we gave up the ghost and opted to go in person to the only open testing clinic in North Vancouver.
Thus ensued a three hour plus ordeal.
The clinic was in an office tower and only one person was escorted up at a time, employing three security guards to carry out that mundane task (one up, one down, and one in the elevator). I discovered later that this was three times the number of physicians in attendance at the clinic.
In order to keep the waiting room socially distanced, the overflow was left downstairs in the open lobby, a motley crew of sick people forced to stand in line for an hour and more. I was too dizzy for that and so I alternated between standing erect and being bent half over to prevent myself from fainting. Being forced to wear a mask did not improve upon my lightheadedness, but I do understand its very marginal benefit, if only to keep everyone calm, in such a situation.
Finally, I was escorted upstairs, had my preliminary exam, and awaited the doctor. Even though I presented with fever and Covid symptoms, no one wiped down my chair in the waiting room or urged me to stay separate from the others (which I did nevertheless). There was also no segregation of those testing for Covid from anyone else, as had been the case implicitly in the Kelowna drive-through.
A further two hour wait in a chilly examination room led to a very productive consultation with a physician who I trusted. No, I did not likely have Covid (the rash pointed away from that prognosis). Yes, I should retest for Covid, just in case the first sample was now so delayed as to be unreliable. Other than that, as with most viruses, I was to stay in bed, hope for recovery, and come back in five days if things did not improve.
Why the extraordinary wait at the only open clinic in the city?
According to one nurse, on-going staffing shortages of both nurses and doctors — amazing, in a city where hospitals have been at half capacity and the vast infrastructure of physician’s offices are closed. In a country where we have blown billions of tax dollars on keeping businesses going and where there are millions of unemployed people. In a health system directly run and funded by the government. Wow.
Color me thoroughly unimpressed with this experience of the health system — nice people, but shame about the place. I actually see myself as fortunate that I did not pick up Covid from the clinic, since it seems to me to be a much higher risk venue than any other location I have been in since March.
Surely our health professionals can do better by providing safe, adequate, timely, convenient, and comfortable service to the general public.
My summer adventure happened after the flu season was officially closed by the authorities in May. It will start up again, as it always does, in October and last for twenty-some weeks after that.
I now have no doubt that there will be utter pandemonium in society during that time period, as millions of people will come to believe, as I did, that Covid has personally reached out for them.
There will be little change in health care capacity between now and then and an equal or greater amount of fear, and so the waits and discomfort and just plain dumb ways in which people will be forced through the health system’s python-like plumbing will magnify accordingly.
Since the flu infects, kills and hospitalizes people at a greater rate than Covid in most locales, setting aside those poor unfortunates at long term care homes around the world, the media will pick up on the toll of suffering and broadcast it relentlessly to the masses.
Then, like now, there will be irresistible political pressure to “do something” and those decisions will be even more divisive, given the memory of this already disruptive time.
I visited 2020 this summer and discovered that it is the year that never stops giving, even though we so wish it would.