14 January 2022

Plague Diaries II: 12 days of covid

Comment COVID-19

After almost two years of reporting on the pandemic, I assumed I’d be prepared when I caught covid. I was wrong.

Day Zero, pre-Ashes

7 December 2021

Every time my phone pings or rings, I leap onto it like a cat trying to catch a garden lizard.

We had a covid positive case at our work Christmas party last Friday and I’m waiting for my result to come in. 

It’s now four days after the initial exposure date. I have developed a moderate cold. 

Covid could have got us anywhere over the past two years but of course, it waited for the only work party of the entire year to strike. 

And, of course, the virus held off announcing its arrival until I’d got on a plane to Melbourne and gone to my friend’s 30thbirthday (which had been delayed by an entire year due to the pandemic). 

I was just about to fly home when the stay-put order arrived. 

NSW Health sent a text at 8.33am on Monday 6 December alerting me that there had been a covid positive case at the Marrickville Bowling Club.

I checked the company Slack. Someone had posted the news the night before. It was an attendee at our Christmas party who was covid positive.

That made all 19 of us casual or close contacts. Fuck.

I called my partner. He was on the street outside his Melbourne office and stopped there; not even going in to collect his bags.  

We met in a park, nervous, masked, on the phone to two workplaces trying to coordinate a company response, cancelling everything we had on that day. 

We waited two hours in a queue at The Alfred hospital to get a covid test. There was limited ventilation in the tent we waited in with about 30 other people.

We had no idea where to go next. Our flight was that evening. We’d already checked out of the Airbnb. 

My partner called a friend who was away on holidays for a few days and secured us a house in Footscray. I was uneasy. What if we were covid positive and were shedding viral particles all over their house? We caught a train there. 

24 hours later, I’d got a call from an unknown number. That was bad. They call if you’re positive. “The test was inconclusive,” they said. “Go get another test.” I walk in the rain to the Footscray covid testing clinic. Here we go again.

Day 1 of the Ashes, Brisbane 

8 December 2021

I am waiting on a second PCR. I lunge at my phone when I wake up. All morning, I stare at it, willing it to ping.

I’m sore all over, I have a raging headache, I’m curled up on the couch glassy-eyed, the cricket washing over me, playing email ping pong with NSW Health.

Yesterday, after numerous incoming calls from Katie* at NSW Health, I send over a list of the 19 party attendees’ phone numbers.

NSW Health do five contact-tracing interviews with people at the Christmas party. They identify three people as close contacts based on who was hanging out with the covid case. They need to isolate for seven days and get retested at the end, we’re told. 

Everyone else is a social casual contact and doesn’t need to do anything unless they develop symptoms. 

But then I get an email from Katie saying three of us are close contacts and the rest are casual contacts, which means we need to get tested on day six.

Then another call from a different contact tracer. Now everyone at the lunch before we went bowling is a close contact and needs to get several tests and isolate. 

Turns out Attendee #1 had caught covid at a pub trivia night at Oxford Tavern in Petersham, which was linked to 44 COVID cases

And Attendee #1 had met up with Attendee #2 on Friday morning … and Attendee #2 just tested positive… so we’re all close contacts now. 

I’ve now sent out three conflicting messages to staff. 

Ah well … back to the cricket … 

Aannnd ping, a message from ‘DH-COVID19’ hits my phone at 1.49pm:

“DH reference number: 39128455 This is the Victorian Department of Health.? Dear FELICITY, You have tested positive for COVID-19. We understand this is a difficult time…”

I tell my friend everyone at their party on Saturday night needs to get tested. 

The Victorian Department of Health calls a lot that day. 

I’m told to isolate, but no, we can’t get into hotel quarantine for 48 hours and we can’t book an Airbnb or a hotel room to isolate in. 

I need to stay in my friend’s house, infusing it with covid. 

Our friends return in four days’ time. It takes, what, three days for covid particles to die, I recall. We are cutting it very fine. 

At 3.01pm I get a call from a friendly lady from the covid testing facility just “checking in”. I explain our housing predicament and she suggests we recommend ourselves as a high priority for hotel quarantine using this form

If that fails, “there’s a Coburg caravan park which is an isolation facility. You could apply for this as well.” 

Uh ok… 

Moments later, a text: “Hi Felicity, I’ve just been advised the caravan park is only for Vic residents. Sorry!”

Our friends will just have to stay at a hotel for a few days before coming home.

My RAT is negative.

At 7.08pm, I get a call from the Victorian Department of Health for a 45-minute contact-tracing session. The caller has no access to my QR code check-ins so I have to open the app and read out each location where I checked in and the precise time. 

I’m exhausted. I’m sore all over. I’m bewildered.

The virus is giving me headaches, muscle pains, compulsive coughing and brain fog, and now I have to answer the same questions from box-ticking bureaucrats across two states multiple times in one day: “MY BIRTHDAY IS XX JANUARY 199X. NO, FOR THE UMPTEENTH TIME, I DO NOT IDENTIFY AND AN ABORIGINAL OR TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER. NO, I DO NOT HAVE ANYWHERE TO STAY. I’m more than willing to assist but I DID SPEAK TO A CONTACT TRACER THE FIRST TIME YOU CALLED AND IT TOOK 45 MINUTES TO ANSWER ALL THE QUESTIONS. I don’t want to waste your time. ARE YOU SURE IT’S NECESSARY TO REPEAT THAT CALL ALL OVER AGAIN?” 

When I’m not being harassed by government officials, my mind flicks through the Rolodex of covid statistics I’ve stored up during the pandemic: 5.3 million deaths0.68% infection fatality ratethree billion vaccines

I push it out of my mind. 

Every historical movie I’ve ever seen about death by infection is plays in my head. I keep mentally watching that video of trucks rolling through the streets of Wuhan spraying disinfectant from canons

My family and friends – and people on Facebook I don’t ever remember befriending – send despairing “get well” messages and “are you still alive” enquiries. 

Also, you’ve got to love being a medical reporter with an interesting disease. Colleagues be like, “don’t die … but also have you thought about filing a story?”

Day 2 of the Ashes, Brisbane

9 December 2021

Through long and detailed phone calls with multiple Department of Justice people while thoroughly out of it, my partner realises he cannot safely do hotel quarantine, thanks to his extreme food intolerances. 

We can get groceries delivered but there are no cooking facilities, so he cannot eat properly.

There are no clothes cleaning facilities either. We only have three changes of clothes.

“We advise you to bring more changes of clothes with you,” the department tells us. 

“We came on a weekend holiday. Can we buy clothes and have them delivered to hotel quarantine?”

“Not sure. It depends on the hotel policy,” they say. “Some people bring washing powder and clean their clothes in the sink.” Great.

If we found a place to stay privately, how would we get there?’ my partner asks. Long pause. “Good question – you obviously can’t get an uber or a taxi or a bus.” 

So, we need to find somewhere to stay within walking distance of this house in Footscray. 

Airbnb has a no-quarantine policy

My partner eventually finds a house 500m away on Stayz, which doesn’t appear to have a covid policy. 

The house sleeps 12 and costs $4,600 for the 10-day quarantine period, plus about five days (so we’re sure the virus is no longer infectious when we leave). I hand over my debit card without a second thought. 

No way I’m putting myself or my partner at the mercy of a state government that can’t satisfy basic human needs like food and clothing and will not accept money for services.

Day 3 of the Ashes, Brisbane

10 December 2021

Seven days into a covid brain fog, all I can do is listen to the pitter patter of the cricket commentators. 

I don’t understand Test cricket, but I find it easy listening. And my partner loves it.

Wickets, short, full, well off the bat, deep in the crease, push into the offside for a quick single, just pitching outside leg stump …

It goes way over my head. 

Sometimes the commentators’ voices rise with excitement and I assume something important has happened. I couldn’t even tell you which side was batting.

Sunny oval, shiny red ball with two stitched seams, cotton vests, long white pants, baggy green caps, tea time …

The worst thing that ever happens in cricket is that it rains, and they need to take the afternoon off.

It took only a few hours for my sense of taste and smell to disappear. That morning, I was enjoying an Uber Eats cappuccino and now Coke is flavourless bubbly liquid and Pringles tingle on the tongue without registering any tang at all. 

My brain can still remember what these things should taste like and tries to fill the gap with phantom flavours. Disconcerting. 

This trash is all I can eat thanks to the nausea. 

The 100% loss of taste and smell is the latest “fuck you” from a virus that’s turning out to be a lot more than a common cold.

The inability to taste is triggering my anxiety (a pre-existing condition set off by stress and exhaustion). 

This creeping feeling of dread isn’t helped by a text message at 8.45am from “CarePathway”.

“Hi Felicity, We are checking in to see how you’re feeling. Please complete our COVID Care tool every day, even if you are feeling well, until you are released from isolation. https://covidcare.mh.org.au/?guid=df634f5850944330a60342915dbe1d1f Please note, symptoms are monitored during clinic opening hours. If you have a medical emergency, please call 000. Thank you, WMHSP COVID Pathway.”

The survey asks about a range of symptoms including breathlessness, chest pain, fever, headaches, vomiting, coughing up blood and diarrhea.

It is unclear to me what authority this group has to insist that I answer the survey, but I assume it’s compulsory, so I comply. 

I’m a little breathless (probably due to anxiety), and my chest hurts from coughing so I try to communicate that via a survey. The fields aren’t quite appropriate for my symptoms, so I approximate something.

Moments later, another text: “The symptoms you reported indicate that you may need urgent medical assistance. If you have not heard from your care provider in the next 30 minutes or if your symptoms are getting worse, please call 000.”

Ok, well that’s terrifying … and probably quite inaccurate. 

I don’t get a call within 30 minutes. I don’t get a call at all.

2.34pm that day, another auto-text: “Hi Felicity, Thanks for completing your earlier assessment.  We wanted to follow-up to see how you’re feeling. Please complete the COVID Care tool again…”

Seriously? This time I tone down my symptoms so I don’t get the scary follow-up robotext. 

Day 4 of the Ashes, Brisbane

11 December 2021

I wake up. I cough. I blearily reach for my phone. 

Message received at 8.42am: “Hi Felicity ...” WMHSP COVID Pathway again. Want me to complete the survey AGAIN. Who invented this?

I’m becoming a bit breathless now and it’s freaking me out, which is making my chest constrict, my palms sweat and my head spin. 

Is this a panic attack? It’s probably a panic attack. 

The dulcet tones of the cricket soothes my soul a little, before a power outage cuts the broadcast. 

I get a call from my older (cardiologist) brother.

My brother is the first doctor I’ve spoken with since being infected with covid.

He says that everyone should speak to a GP when they get covid; it doesn’t matter how healthy or mild the illness is. 

The GP will devise an action plan for when you need to call an ambulance, he says. 

I’m literally a health journalist who has written for a GP magazine for more than five years. Why did no one mention this before? 

“So, what are the warning signs that mean we need to call an ambulance?” I ask.

“Oh, like if someone can’t be roused, is non-responsive, delirious, confused, has blue lips, chest pain and is so breathless they can’t complete a sentence,” he says. 

This is the first bit of useful medical advice I’ve received from anyone. 

I book a GP appointment with Sia Medical Centre in Footscray for the next day for me and my partner, who has tested positive by this point and is becoming very ill. 

That afternoon, he gets a call from a Victorian government contact tracer. 

Even though my partner has been in isolation and seen no one but me for four days the contact tracer ploughs on through the whole irrelevant process. 

That evening my partner gets a high fever and headache and starts being a lot more horizontal than normal.

Day 5, no cricket

12 December 2021

2am. Can’t sleep. Got a fever again.

I get more and more agitated. 

I call the BeyondBlue covid hotline to try to get some advice. 

A nice lady on the graveyard shift agrees I’m probably just a bit anxious because I’m away from home and I’ve got a virus that we’ve been running from for two years. 

Try listening to a podcast or some calming music? 

It’s all very obvious stuff that I know, I just can’t access the knowledge in that moment of stress. 

Through multiple phone calls with Victorian and NSW health authorities, a dozen text messages and hours of questioning, I do not recall this brilliant service being mentioned once. 

We chat to a GP finally in the daylight hours. It’s amazingly helpful. My partner gets codeine-paracetamol for his severe muscle aches and headaches. He’s been in so much pain, he’s been writhing in bed. It’s awful to watch.

I get anti-nausea meds. I didn’t know they were a thing you could get. I haven’t been able to eat more than a few mouthfuls in days.

The GP sends our prescription to the pharmacy downstairs. 

Our Melbourne friends are all unavailable and we can’t wait 24 hours for the pharmacy to organise a delivery.

So, I arrange an Uber delivery from a pharmacy two minutes’ walk away. 

Of course, one of the faxed prescriptions doesn’t make its way to the pharmacy so I need to call the GP, then the pharmacy and then the GP again to get it sent through by email. 

And I need to call the Uber driver to explain what this is all about.

And then the pharmacy needs to call me to confirm the name of the uber driver. 

So, five phone calls later, drugs on the doorstep. Smooth!

Day 6, no cricket

13 December 2021

Around 12pm, my partner turns off the dumb comedy podcast we’d been listening to and goes very quiet.

“I’m feeling really dizzy,” he whispers. “I think maybe we should call an ambulance.”

He’s been hot to touch for the past 24 hours and his breathing is shallow. 

I call 000 for the first time in my life. Triage takes under four minutes. 

I run around the house collecting medications, pajamas, socks, underwear, phone charger … 

Ten minutes later, the paramedics knock on the door. They give me an N95 mask to wear. 

They are great. Like superheroes. 

They check my partner’s blood oxygen levels, he’s fine. They check his pulse, fine. They check his temperature and blood pressure and run an ECG – nothing to worry about. 

“This is just what covid looks like. Your stats are all normal, but you did the right thing calling us out. I had covid recently and I was in bed for days. Just keep drinking water and get lots of rest.”

It’s a waterfall of relief knowing my partner is ok and isn’t going to be stuck in some covid ward with no one to advocate for him.  

I ask how we will know when to call the ambos again. “Just poke him,” they say. “If he doesn’t come round after a lot of poking, give us a call.” They demonstrate by poking the air and I laugh. Ok. That is something simple that I can follow.

In other good news, Ooo I can taste again!!!! 

Day 7, Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix replay 

14 December 2021

The ambulance clearly contacted the coroneaucrats because we get our worst phone call yet.

My partner has been triaged into the “hospital in the home” system for covid patients, says the caller. He’ll receive a pulse oximeter and thermometer. 

They just need to collect some information first. 

I offer to speak on his behalf, explaining that he is too weak right now. 

The woman politely tells us that the patient needs to answer the questions in order for any health services to be provided.

My partner is keen to get the additional care, so he lies the phone on his chest and whispers answers into it for the next 48 minutes. 

About 20 questions in, the woman warns us that the next question, “might be a bit sensitive or upsetting: Have you ever thought about harming yourself?”

I explode, as politely as I can manage. “Why do you need to ask all these questions? My partner is very sick. Is this for a study? How is that relevant to hospital-in-the-home care?”

We go back and forth until my partner urges me to stop. I am so angry I have to leave the room. I know it’s not the woman’s fault. She’s just doing her job.

But she is stopping someone who is actually ill from resting. And threatening to withhold healthcare.

She is focusing on all the most distressing symptoms of covid, many of which are not relevant to us. And every time we mention a symptom, she sounds concerned. 

At one point, she calls an actual nurse over who assures her that all our symptoms are pretty standard. 

In the fog of covid, we don’t record the name of the app we were supposed to download. There is no follow-up mention of the app in the subsequent phone calls. 

My partner gets calls from this service each day. They don’t let him answer with “same as yesterday, except” – he has to go through the whole interrogation from the top. Each time they ask, “Is it ok if we share your information?”, but seem to have no access to the information that was collected the previous day.

On the third day, my partner just tells them to stop calling because it’s too tiring.

A GP on Twitter has suggested I get a pulse oximeter so I’ve ordered one online several days ago, but it hasn’t arrived.

So, I buy another and ask a Melbourne friend to pick it up and deliver it. I figure we can give the spares out as morbid Christmas gifts.

Our GP collects the readings and says not to worry too much about the numbers in relation to fever. “If you’ve got a fever, you’ve got a fever. Obviously, if you’re so overheated that you’re delirious, get to hospital.”

The government’s free pulse oximeter and thermometer arrive several days later. 

I didn’t realise there was so much crashing in car racing. Wild finish!

Day 8, Adelaide Test! 

15 December 2021

I’m well enough to feel bored but not well enough to do anything fun. 

1.50pm: Another text from CarePathway: “Dear Felicity, You have elected to be managed by your GP. Please call them and make an appointment. The practice is Sia Medical Centre Footscray (3011). Regards, West Metro COVID-19”

Wow… eight days after I’ve tested positive I get referred to a local GP. And this service gets state government funding?!

By now, we are calling our local GP every day for a free telehealth appointment. Each call takes less than 10 minutes and gets straight to the point. 

Our doctor is great, assessing both of us at once and quickly sorting symptoms into “something to note and monitor” and “something not to worry about right now”. 

GPs really are angels.

Day 9, more cricket

16 December 2021 

My partner still can’t leave bed except to go to the bathroom a few times a day. The drugs are limiting the teeth-chattering fevers and the writhing from muscle aches but he’s still not out of the woods.

I’m cooking all his meals, doing the daily washing to keep our three changes of clothes clean, and fetching him icy water and lemonade every few hours. 

The blinds are drawn in the bedroom. It’s hard to sit in a different room because I’m so worried about him taking a nasty turn. 

I’m sending his parents daily covid symptom updates. He doesn’t have the energy.

1742 daily covid cases in NSW and rising.

Day 16 – a week of the same later – I’ll be home for Christmas! 

23 December 2021

My partner finally has just enough energy to fly home. 

80 flights are cancelled that day due to covid affecting staffing at airports – but not ours! 

We throw ourselves down on our very own bed, feeling the sense of safety of being home and enjoying the lack of metal springs in the mattress!

Our little weekend holiday had turned into 21 days away from home.

Day 28 post covid, Start of the Sydney test! 

5 January 2022 

Thirty-five thousand and fifty-four cases reported in the past 24 hours, 1,491 hospitalisations, 119 in ICU, 32 on ventilators. 

Three deaths overnight.

RATs are in short supply. Evert pharmacy I go to has a “RATs unavailable” sign out the front.

PCR tests are being delayed by up to a week. Pathology labs are shutting their doors to process the mountains of tests. 

A close friend has tested positive on a RAT. He was in our living room two nights ago for a few hours. 

Our Sydney GP has no idea if we should get tested. NSW Health doesn’t have guidance on this that he’s aware of.

My partner got a text from the Victorian government saying that he shouldn’t get tested for covid within 90 days of being positive, even if he’s a close contact. 

This is because the result may keep coming up positive due to the old infection.

I didn’t get that text.

My GP prescribes Nasonex for my dripping nose and a Symbicort inhaler for my chest heaviness and breathing issues. Both seem to really help. I swap these out for the Codral I’d been taking.

We chat to our Sydney GP about how to tell our employers that we’re still fatigued, congested and brain foggy and probably can’t do a full-time workload. 

It often takes up to 12 weeks to recover from covid, he says. After eight weeks, it’s called long covid. There are no clinics to help manage long covid in Sydney yet but the RACGP has a pamphlet that has some advice. 

Really? That’s all we have after two years of living through a global pandemic?

My brother’s wedding is in three days’ time. I pull out my microphone to record my speech.

It’s raining at the cricket. 

This already feels like long covid. 

You can read the full story on Medium.

*Name changed