Breathing Room

Two weeks ago today I wasn’t feeling quite right, and thought I’d better do a lateral flow test from the kit we’d recently been given, just in case. Within moments I was confronted with this:

My positive lateral flow test result, 7 September 2021


I sat out the thirty minutes before reading the final result, but it wasn’t as if that heavy positive test line was about to disappear. By the time of my follow-up PCR test that evening I definitely wasn’t feeling well. That night I was feverish, and when the confirmation of Covid came through the next day there was already no doubt of it.

My temperature took three days to return to normal, spiking each night, but the effects of the disease lasted longer than that, and some are still with me a fortnight later. The biggest effect was on my sense of my body; I was acutely aware of something going on under the surface. It was a sense of pressure, as if my muscles or an external force were tensing and squeezing everything, meaning that all of my attention and focus was taken up by my body the whole time, leaving little room for much else.

I was getting patchy sleep, but mostly enough. When my temperature came down slightly, I hoped that maybe it had turned a corner and I’d have only a few days of feeling ill, as some have described experiencing in their mild cases. The next day wasn’t really an easing off, though, so much as different. I was still feeling weaker than normal, as if I’d just done a long run, and now my sense of balance was affected; I could be active for thirty or forty minutes, but then needed to take a break.

By Sunday I was feeling less bodily pressure but still that fatigue in my muscles, and an awareness of things going on under the skin and in my fingertips and toes. Then I encountered another of the roll call of Covid symptoms: I’d been using a jar of homemade strawberry jam to test my sense of smell, which had always been reliably fragrant, until I tried it at lunchtime and smelled… nothing. My sense of smell was completely gone, and with it, the fine details of taste; I could taste saltiness, sweetness, texture, and that was about it. Food now tasted flat and weird, and the air smelled wrong. It wasn’t like having a blocked nose during a cold, when you’re aware that the underlying sense is there; this was like shutting the fuses off. Butter on bread was a slab of fat, tasting of nothing. The morning air when I awoke was cold and clinical.

Loss of smell seems to affect half of all Covid cases, and can take months to come back, so this was a depressing development. The next day was worse, as now my lungs felt different; my breathing wasn’t laboured, it just felt more raw. I’d been keeping panic at bay knowing that being vaccinated meant less chance of ending up in hospital, but knew that could quickly change if my breathing took a dive. I watched my pulse oximeter readings closely.

A week after that positive test, it felt as if the disease could go either way, either continuing its grim march through the symptoms or starting to get better. To my relief, the next day my lungs were no worse, and I felt slightly less fatigued and shaky. On day ten of self-isolation I had the first hint of my sense of smell coming back: ground coffee smelled of something again. Over the next few days, I started picking up hints of strawberry from the jam, then garlic and peppermint, and by the end of the weekend it was mostly back, although some of the nuances seem to be taking longer.

On Friday I was at last allowed to leave the flat. I did another lateral flow test to confirm that I was no longer infectious (to satisfy my own curiosity, as it isn’t a requirement for ending self-isolation) and then ventured out for a short bike ride. That went okay, but I could sense that a longer one, even my usual ride to work, might be a bit much; I still felt as if I’d physically done a lot more than I actually had, and even today still do. But I can’t let it stop me from getting on with things any more: it’s a new semester, there are students to teach and emails to write, and the worst of the Covid is over.

So how did I get it, when I’d had my second shot of Pfizer in June, and had recently tested positive for antibodies as part of the ongoing ONS Covid survey and so knew that the vaccine had worked?

Our daughter caught it at school. Edinburgh kids went back on a Wednesday in mid-August, and early the following week she had an odd cough, but not what you’d call continuous, so we waited to see how it developed. Later in the week she felt unwell at school and came home early, so we went and got all of us PCR tested just in case, but were all negative. The test centre gave us a stack of lateral flow kits to take home, which we used to check her progress over the weekend. She kept testing negative, but then on the Sunday night developed a high temperature. The next morning her LFT showed the faintest of lines on the test line, and a PCR test that afternoon confirmed that she had it.

There was nothing we could do now except take reassurance from the lower risks to children in general, even if a small proportion of cases turn out badly. Our daughter’s temperature came down after a day, and after a few days of feeling tired she seemed okay; the main challenge was dealing with the boredom of having to self-isolate and missing two weeks of school. Meanwhile, our next concern was our fourteen-year-old son, who hadn’t been vaccinated (he wasn’t eligible yet) and was at slightly higher risk of complications. His PCR test came back negative, though, and further tests have stayed negative. So have all of J.’s, and so did mine, until I came down with it on the last day of our daughter’s self-isolation period. I would have caught it four or five days earlier. We kept the windows open throughout, but inside the family home it’s impossible to distance effectively; if anything, it’s surprising only half of us got it.

If we backtrack past the first day that our daughter had a possible symptom, we can only conclude that she got infected in the first few days back at school. Several other kids in her class of thirty tested positive in those first few weeks, and over ten percent of the kids in her school. The past month has felt like being subjected to an experiment in reaching herd immunity by letting it spread through the young rather than vaccinating them. Only now, when all of Britain’s kids are already back in school, have 12-to-15-year-olds been approved for a single dose of Pfizer; I hope our son will get his soon. The prospect of younger children getting one still feels a long way off.

Meanwhile, UK parents mentioning on social media that their kids caught Covid at school are getting anti-vaxxer comments that it’s a cold or the flu.

It’s nothing like them. I get plenty of colds, and have had the flu more than once. Covid isn’t the sickest I’ve ever been; those were chest infections in my twenties and a particularly bad case of the flu (also despite being vaccinated) several Christmases ago. But it hasn’t been easy, and the novelty of the symptoms was deeply unsettling. I can certainly see how pushing them just a little further, for example if you were unvaccinated, could land you in hospital.

I’m still not even sure it’s over for me. How I feel today seems all right when it’s a few days after the worst of it, but if I still feel like this in a month I’ll be worried.

Over seven million people in the UK have tested positive to date, and even if there are half as many again who’ve had it but been asymptomatic or untested, that means eighty percent of the population still haven’t had it yet. In September 2021 it’s felt as if I was late in getting Covid, but maybe in the long run I’ve been early.

I’m just grateful it wasn’t in September 2020, before the vaccine.

21 September 2021 · Events