When we booked our trip to London for the second week of December, we had no idea that a new variant was about to rage through the city and quickly become the dominant strain. We were both double-vaccinated, but were still very cautious and wondered if we should get the booster vaccination before we left. Online research indicated that we needed to wait six months after our last shots, which were in July, so we weren’t eligible until the end of January 2022. We thought we should still double check, in case the website information was out of date and called our local medical centre, who confirmed that we needed to wait six months. This is the best information we had when we first made our plans. At this time, the daily cases were way down and there were only six cases of the new variant, Omicron; everything had opened up again for a while now, and we were beginning to believe that the end of the pandemic was in sight. We could not have been more wrong.
When we first arrived in London, I was surprised (and a little unsettled) to find that everything was well and truly open. Pubs, restaurants, and hotel lobbies were operating without masks, and there were people everywhere, out and about. Harrods and other shops were requiring and enforcing the wearing of masks though, and had hand sanitiser dispensers dispersed throughout the store. It honestly felt like the safest place in London. We ended up having a lovely trip with long dinners in nice restaurants, a return visit to the Spitalfields Market to try a food stand we’d missed the last time, visits to many pubs and shops. In the back of my mind, I was always a little puzzled about the sheer lack of concern from everyone in the city. But it was two weeks until Christmas and after two long years, everyone was clearly experiencing pandemic fatigue and searching for normality. Just like us. For us, though, this trip would turn out to be a wild miscalculation.
When we arrived home on Friday evening (the 10th of December) everything was fine. We lit the fire, opened a bottle of wine. The next day, Saturday, was also fine. By Sunday evening, however, a sudden exhaustion overtook me, along with severe body aches, especially across my upper back and shoulders. I fell dramatically to the sofa, declaring to P that I’ve got the covid! Half joking, half serious. But we both honestly believed that it was unlikely for either one of us to contract the disease. We had always been so careful. That night, I had a terrible sleep, waking up with chills, then night sweats. I began to suspect Omicron. Symptoms at this point included a scratchy throat, dry cough, chills, muscle and body aches, headache, fatigue, congestion (and maddening sinus pressure), and a runny nose.
We had a box and a half of unused Lateral Flow Tests from May in the house, so on Monday, I took a test and it came back negative. P took one too, and it also came back negative. Then I took another, and it came back positive. I refused to believe it. As a germaphobic hypochondriac, I thought I actually had a chance of making it through this pandemic without succumbing to any of the strains. And it was entirely possible, as I had had the luxury of staying in for the past two years. But now it looked like I actually had the virus and I was terrified. It had been built up in my mind how horrific it would be after watching the daily news reports for so long. There were fears of being hospitalised and intubated. Fears of long covid. Death. And it also felt like a personal failing⏤I had been so careful. The constant hand-washing and mask-wearing. All that hand sanitiser. The two years spent not going anywhere. I was also incredulous that we were supposed to deal with this at home on our own, without any information about what to expect, how long it would last, what the signs were that things were taking a bad turn.
On Monday, I decided to skip my workouts and try not to expend too much energy. I spent the day working quietly at the computer to take my mind off of things, but had to take frequent breaks due to sudden bouts of exhaustion. Monday night was a really bad night. I had trouble sleeping, waking up several times throughout the night. I still refused to believe that I had COVID-19, even after eight Lateral Flow Tests in two days, with 3.5 of them returning a positive result. I ordered a PCR test online and it arrived on Tuesday morning. P dropped it off at a Priority Mailbox the same day. On Wednesday morning, I felt strangely energetic, like I could go for a run or at least a very long walk. I took more Lateral Flow Tests. They came back positive. At 10:26am on Thursday morning, I received a text from the NHS telling me that my PCR test was positive. I actually felt fine by this point, with the exception of sinus congestion and a headache. I continued to work, becoming super-tired only once later in the day, so things were improving.
On Friday, felt fine most of the day. Saturday (Day 6) symptoms included sinus pressure, headache, sneezing, watery eyes, lingering malaise, cough, and scratchy throat. Sunday (Day 7) I was still tired with a scratchy throat, but my mood and outlook, and more importantly, energy levels were much improved. Monday (Day 8) I slept in late (until 10:00am), but felt much better once up. I did have a dry, scratchy throat and bouts of coughing a few times throughout the night. By early afternoon, I felt well enough to take another Lateral Flow Test and it came back negative. It felt like the virus had finally left my body.
On Tuesday, December 21 (Day 9) I was feeling much better, like myself again. On Wednesday (Day 10), back to feeling a little tired at first, although that may have been due to the red wine the night before. I began feeling much better as the day wore on, the way I did before I got sick. Put on makeup for the first time in over a week, went outside for a walk along the river and breathed in the scent of fresh outdoor countryside air. I was also well enough to even consider perhaps resuming my workouts, the last one being over two weeks before.
It took P two days longer than I to exhibit Omicron symptoms, perhaps the reason for hesitation to believe that I had it. But once I knew it to be true, we automatically assumed that he had it as well. He took four Lateral Flow Tests at the same time that I did, and they all came back negative. I ordered a PCR test for him, but he didn’t complete it until nine days after he was already certain he had the virus. He received the result two days later and it was positive. All his Lateral Flow Tests had been returning false negatives. It was alarming. And while I felt better after seven days, P continued to experience extreme fatigue well into the second week. He became anxious and concerned and decided to call his doctor to ask if he might need to be admitted to hospital. She advised him to get a pulse oximeter to track how fast his heart was beating, and more importantly, the oxygen saturation of his arterial haemoglobin (how much oxygen is in his blood). A reading of less than 94 would mean the hospital.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, we both took our pulse oximeter readings and they were both fine. (Mine was better than fine.) P was much relieved and immediately began to feel better. It was something concrete that he had to go on, just as his doctor must have suspected he needed. We celebrated Christmas just the two of us, even though we had both completed our quarantine period, just in case. We didn’t want to risk infecting family members.
I’m writing this account for my future self, to remember what it was like to have COVID-19. And in case I encounter long covid down the road. It was not mild, as has been reported in the press, but rather serious. I’m not sure what would have happened if neither of us had had two vaccinations before contracting the disease. I was able to get through it by throwing myself into work. With nothing distracting me, or the feeling that I needed to get outside (and the fact that I was simply not permitted to) I was able to focus and get more done. I took paracetamol, Vitamin D, B12 and zinc, drank lots of fluids and Lemsip. I was surprised to not have lost my appetite, and to be really hungry during this time. Another strange thing I noticed was that my favourite perfume smelled terrible on my skin while I was ill, giving me a headache and making me wonder if I had made a mistake buying it. Once I was better, however, it smelled wonderful. Powdery and spicy and sophisticated.
There are several factors that may explain why we ended up catching COVID-19: there were far more Omicron cases in London than was being reported before we booked our trip, and our vaccinations (both AstraZeneca) had long worn off from July, making us more susceptible.
Another important thing to note is that during the time we were recovering, the guidance had completely changed, with the time between the last vaccination and the booster being reduced first to three months, and then to two. I had always thought the six-month wait (as previously stipulated) was for medical reasons, but clearly that was not the case. The self-isolation time has also changed from ten to seven days. By December 29, there were 183,037 new confirmed cases in a single day. A new all-time high in the UK. Omicron now makes up 90% of all new cases.
While scientists are cautious about promoting the idea that Omicron is milder or less severe than its predecessors, we do feel fortunate that it is the variant we caught versus Delta, which might have been much more serious. We are also fortunate that we are not in high-risk categories. With cases soaring everyday and hospitalisations higher than they have ever been, it might seem like the end will never come, but there is hope that Omicron may be the beginning of the end.
According to The Atlantic, one way to gauge where we stand at the moment is by looking at the social-scientific marker, that is, “when people have gotten used to living with the ongoing presence of a particular pathogen. By that definition, the massive surge of Omicron infections that is currently coursing through scores of developed countries without eliciting more than a half-hearted response marks the end of the pandemic.”
While there is still a great amount of uncertainty for the coming year, we have our booster vaccinations already booked for the 15th of January and will continue to be cautious while trying to live our lives.
A more scientific way to gauge is by looking at Omicron itself more closely. While there may be other strains, it may be the final variant of concern. The laws of biochemistry state that the virus cannot improve indefinitely, that it “will eventually evolve a spike protein that binds to ACE2 as strongly as possible. By that point, the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to spread between people will not be limited by how well the virus can stick to the outside of cells. Other factors will limit virus spread, such as how fast the genome can replicate, how quickly the virus can enter the cell via the protein TMPRSS2, and how much virus an infected human can shed. In principle, all of these should eventually evolve to peak performance.” (The Conversation) And there is good reason to assume that Omicron has reached this peak.