I thought I had Covid-19. The worst symptom was paranoia

Recently, my sister Kaila and I started experiencing symptoms of Covid-19. We had dry cough and fever, along with other flu-like symptoms including achiness and runny nose. My sister had just returned from a work trip in Milan, Italy, where the number of coronavirus-related deaths was growing and the government had imposed a nationwide lockdown. Still, we hadn’t thought much about the virus, since there were still very few cases in Canada. In our ignorance, we figured the craziness would be contained to the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Then the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. That’s when my sister and I started worrying about our symptoms. Could we have Covid-19? One morning, anticipating grocery closures and a food shortage, we hopped in her white VW Beetle and booted it over to Loblaws to stockpile home supplies and non-perishables.

At 8 a.m., there were no parking spots in the otherwise laid-back lot. We waited near the front row of cars, until a woman exited the store and walked to her vehicle. As my sister and I idled, the woman felt compelled to come over to our car and warn us about going in. “It’s crazy in there,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” We parked and headed for the front doors, where there were no shopping carts, just a white-haired man in a black leather jacket swaying back and forth beside the garbage bin.

After we stepped through the automatic doors, as my sister searched for a cart, I rushed over and grabbed two trays of banana chocolate muffins. I’ve never bought muffins at the grocery store and I rarely seek them out, even at hotel breakfast buffets. But, on that day, I hoarded them like a madman. I think my lizard brain calculated that the muffins were high in calories and had a relatively long shelf life, making them a savvy pre-apocalyptic purchase. We loaded up the cart with everything from almond milk to beef Ichiban and hit the check-out line.

As we shuffled toward the counter, snot started to trickle from my nose. I dabbed it with my sleeve and looked around, fearing that everyone in the store knew that I had Covid-19. In my head, they all hated me for not taking the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. God forbid I sneezed or coughed. My sister and I rang up $260 worth of groceries, the biggest haul of my adult life. As we took turns splitting the bill on our credit cards, all I could imagine were the germs being transferred between people touching the debit machine. We jumped back in the car and tuned into Howard Stern, who played a parody of the knack song “My Sharona,” using the eye-rollingly bad title “My Corona.” The virus was everywhere.

After we got home, we became convinced of our own illness. Every ache, cough, sniffle and sneeze were a confirmed diagnosis. My sister is asthmatic and supposedly at high risk of fatal illness, which compounded our concern. Also, people who had been recently travelling were a large percentage of the virus-carrying population. We wanted to err on the side of caution. So, we got back into my sisters’ car and zipped over to Michael Garron Hospital for tests.

We parked in the lot near the emergency entrance, locked up and followed the arrow on a makeshift sign that said “Covid-19 Testing.” A TV crew filmed a news segment on a nearby patch of grass. We were afraid to be filmed by the cameras, believing that if our friends, family and co-workers spotted us going into the testing center, we’d quickly become social outcasts. So, we ducked our heads and hurried down an empty concrete pathway that ran between two red-brick buildings toward the entrance. In the grey of the late winter morning, our surroundings evoked Chernobyl.

Before we could reach the doors, two people in giant hazmat suits, face shields and big latex gloves opened them from the inside. They shouted from behind their masks, “Do you have an appointment?” We shook our heads. Then a slightly hunched man in a black sweater and sweat pants walked up behind us. He pulled up his collar to obscure his face. Apparently, he had an appointment. The hazmat suits let him in right away and told us to call the helpline.

Kaila and I walked back to the car, feeling defeated. We were convinced that anyone walking into the testing center would contract the virus, if they didn’t have it already: given the grimness of the walkway, the sartorial precautions taken by the people at the entrance and the risk of getting infected by a fellow patient. We wanted to go home and self-quarantine, to avoid enduring the indignity and potential health hazards of waiting for a test.

On a whim, I decided to try the emergency entrance. There, I informed the attendant that I’d been in contact with someone who’d recently travelled to Italy. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I became high-priority. I ran back to the car to grab Kaila and the nurses whisked us through to see a doctor almost immediately. It was the fastest service I’d ever received at a hospital.

We sat wearing fresh face masks in a recently sanitized room. The nurse asked for our symptoms, took our blood pressure and temperature. Neither of us had high fevers. Then came the nose swabs, which involved shoving a thin stick, roughly the shape of a small q-tip, about three inches into our noses. When I watched my sister struggle to poke the instrument through her nostrils, I thought it looked fake, given how far the swab disappeared into her nasal cavity. I joked that it likely scratched the bottom of her brain. Shortly after, I had my turn and pushed the stick deep enough into my nose that I started to tear up, which indicated to the nurse that I’d produced a viable sample.

We left the hospital, wondering if it would be pragmatic to tell people that we’d just been tested. We feared being socially sequestered before even learning the results of our tests. Either way, the doctor recommended that we quarantine separately until we found out. But individual quarantine sounded like a drag, so we broke the rule a bit and hung out with one another at my sister’s apartment. After all, if one of us had it, the other probably did, too. Or maybe we just twisted the logic to suit our preferences.

Of course, the news that we’d been tested slowly leaked to our friends. I told one person and, before long, I received messages from everyone. It’s a delicious bit of gossip to learn that a friend might potentially have coronavirus. When my friends reached out, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were concerned about my well-being or just mining information to determine whether I could’ve potentially passed on the virus. “Let me know when you find out,” they said. Which I interpreted as “Let me know when you test negative, so I no longer have to worry about myself.” Even well-wishes had somehow morphed into a threat. Covid-19 had really gotten under our skin.

Kaila and I hunkered down at her apartment for a few days, obsessively awaiting the results, watching Netflix and over-eating. Out of some combination of stress and boredom, I raided the fridge more than usual, scouring for peanut butter and cereal and green apples. Over the course of a few days, our symptoms seemed to worsen in tandem with the news. The number of confirmed cases in Ontario climbed—my sister’s fever forced her into bed. The government banned all non-essential travel—my achiness made it hard to wash the dishes. Or at least that’s what I told my sister.

After a few days in quarantine, considering our persistent symptoms and the rise in confirmed traveller cases, we grew accustomed to the thought of having Covid-19 and being stuck in self-quarantine for the next few months. We began to justify the scenario. We had an endless supply of Ichiban and unwatched Netflix shows, right? If we stayed pat, we wouldn’t infect anyone else. How bad could it be?

But then, nearly a week after getting tested, I got a call from Michael Garron Hospital. They said that I don’t have Covid-19. Kaila got the same call shortly after. And we’re not alone. In Ontario, 62,733 have tested negative, while 2,793 have tested positive—meaning less than 1 in 20 people who get checked actually have Covid-19. Over the next few months, people experiencing symptoms will have to grapple with the decision to get tested. Should they stay home and self-quarantine? Should they go to the hospital, clogging up waiting rooms, taking swabs from those who need them? It’s an existential crisis that every Torontonian with a fever or cough could face in next couple months.

Still, the government information about whether to get tested is unclear. For now, everyone experiencing symptoms (fever, new cough or difficulty breathing) should simply return home and self-isolate. Then, they should seek clinical assessment over the phone and get further direction from a healthcare professional. Anyone can go in for a test. However, when there are a limited number available, health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, homelessness shelters, symptomatic travelers, patients with respiratory symptoms and members of indigenous communities will be prioritized.

For my sister and I, getting a negative result was somewhat anti-climatic, especially after we’d imagined ourselves victims of a global pandemic. Either way, we reveled in our newfound freedom from the health-related and social consequences of testing positive. But then, we thought, What happens if we go outside and actually get it?

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