It started with a text from a friend warning she had tested positive for COVID-19.
I had managed to dodge the illness for two years and had received three doses of the vaccine. Maybe it would miss me again, I reasoned. But soon, I found myself on a roller-coaster of symptoms — some of them entirely unexpected.
By the next morning, the edge of a cough was creeping in and deep aches were spreading through my body, lingering in my hips. I quickly confirmed with a rapid test: For the first time since the pandemic began, I had picked up the virus, making me one of the many people who are ill amid limited public health measures and a sixth wave of the virus.
“Not you too.”
A message from Daniel Reghelini, a former co-worker, reads up my phone. He later described night sweats so intense that he had to sleep on towels.
Day two of his illness was a whirlwind of sleeping, burning up from a fever and severe, teeth-chattering chills, Reghelini said. Meanwhile, he couldn’t stomach eating anything for several days: gastrointestinal issues, a new sign of the virus in the Omicron wave, made it so that eating was, in a word, uncomfortable.
Even if he could keep his food down, eating zapped Reghelini’s remaining energy. Chewing, he said, “was the equivalent of running a marathon.”
It seemed that everyone I knew was posting photos of positive test results. Soon, I started a group chat with others who recently tested positive, where we shared symptoms and tips on how to feel even slightly better. It quickly became a community built on moral support.
While the core symptoms (a sore or scratchy throat, headache, fatigue and a cough) described in the group chat were all consistent, it was soon clear that none of us were experiencing the virus in the same way.
One person reported extreme joint pain in her elbow, while I had a deep, burning pain radiate through my hips. Another spent multiple days feverish, while some had no fever at all. Another described a sore throat so severe it required prescription painkillers and prevented eating or drinking.
For me, more things I never expected as symptoms soon cropped up: I felt a tingling sensation in my face and arm, something which felt like white noise buzzing under my skin and which came on intermittently. Now nearly two weeks in, I still need to catch my breath after doing basic tasks, but am largely over my symptoms — at least I think (and hope) I am.
This diversity of symptoms is due to a variation in people’s immunity, said Dr. Kashif Pirzada, a critical care physician based in Toronto.
Omicron has often been described as mild, a myth that has been perpetuated in part, Pirzada said, because despite the high virulence of this variant there is increased immunity to it. Most people have had multiple doses of the vaccine and therefore increased protection, he said.
Newer symptoms have emerged with Omicron and its subvariant, BA.2, that didn’t previously present in people who contracted the disease. The gastrointestinal issues described by Reghelini are more common, Pirzada noted, adding that the virus attacks all of your body’s systems at the same time.
“How quickly your immune system fights it off is important,” he said. “If your immune system can beat it at the nose and throat and keep it from spreading systemically, that’s important.”
Very few people interviewed for this article described their symptoms as mild.
“I felt like it kind of kicked my a–,” said Nancy Oliver, from Coburg, Ont.
On day two, Oliver woke up and headed downstairs — and then immediately turned around and got back into bed. Over the course of the next two days, that’s where she stayed, suffering from a fever that wouldn’t break and a cough that sat low in her chest and sounded like a dog barking, even scaring her cat off her bed once.
Rachel Wasser, a mother of two in Toronto, said COVID-19 arrived on her family’s doorstep last week, affecting each person differently.
Her son had a bad cough resembling croup, which brought them to the emergency room. Her daughter eventually developed a cough and fever, as well as vomiting. Her husband has had a full week of symptoms, which have plateaued rather than improving.
“I feel like we’re getting hit pretty hard,” she said.
For more than a week, I was anxious. Not just for my health, but for my family’s. While I live alone, I had breakfast with my parents before I found out about my friend’s positive result. What if they got it for the first time, too? Rapid testing would later relieve my concerns.
Angela Filice, a parent and teacher from Etobicoke, had the same thought. Sometimes, she said, she was in a state of panic amid the rest of her symptoms.
“I just feel so awful that I brought this home. I’m still so wary that my kids will get sick.”
Filice also worried about the future: she survived the initial onset of the virus, yes, but what if something happened down the road because of COVID-19?
Pirzada, the critical care doctor, said it’s possible that some symptoms will carry on and turn into long COVID.
Heart and lung problems, which cause persistent fatigue or the inability to handle basic activities, can linger. There’s also joint pain, part of something called chronic fatigue syndrome, Pirzada said. Finally, brain fog.
A small minority of people will have some scarring on their lungs, he added. Coughing and feeling winded after your recovery is something that should be looked at by a health-care provider.
I was privileged to be able to avoid getting sick until now. This brush with COVID-19 was made significantly easier for me with access to vaccines, which prevented hospitalization. At the worst of my illness, when I could barely lift my head from my pillow, I wondered how bad I might have had it if I got sick while unvaccinated.
What I expected was a head cold. But what I, and so many others, experienced was a roller-coaster of symptoms which far exceeded the “mild Omicron” myth that was so pervasive over the winter.
Health restrictions may be over. This wave of the virus, though, certainly is not.
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