Life

My Two Months of Two COVID Variants

In late November, I got a suspected case of delta. By Christmas, I had a suspected case of omicron. My experience may not be so unusual.

A masked person.
Photo by Max van den Oetelaar via Unsplash

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Amelia McConville, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student in Dublin, Ireland, whose doctor suspects McConville was infected with two different coronavirus variants in two months. It has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Aymann Ismail.

I got vaccinated mid-July 2021 as soon as one-shot vaccinations were available in Ireland for people between 18 and 34. I got the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccination. There was a huge rush to get vaccinated, particularly among young people. Ireland has got one of the highest vaccine uptake rates in Europe, maybe even in the world. I love Ireland, but even I was a little bit surprised to hear that.

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All was pretty good then for a couple of months after that. I went on a few trips within Ireland, still obviously wearing masks and hand-washing and doing all the usual stuff. At the end of September, a big group of us went up to a music festival in Northern Ireland, the AVA Festival in Belfast. There was a lot of excitement because for many of us it was the first music festival we’d been to for a really long time. Two years almost to the week, actually, for me. We were all excited.

We shared a house. It was an outdoor festival in line with the regulations at the time. Most of it was outside in tents. When it was over, a lot of us had come back feeling a little bit worse for wear. I think the immune system takes a little bit of a bashing when we’ve all been distancing and isolating for so long. Anyone who was feeling unwell got PCRs or did antigen tests. All of us were fine apart from my poor housemate, who is in a vulnerable category. She had gotten the Pfizer vaccine back in May. Unfortunately, she had COVID. It was mild symptoms. She wasn’t well but she wasn’t totally flattened by it. I never got it, fortunately.

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Having had a brush with a household close contact, I sort of thought I was going to be OK. And then around about the same time, I started reading about the fact that a lot of the data on the Johnson vaccine was that the immunity was potentially waning after as little as three months. So I started to sort of feel the specter of COVID again hanging over me, this encroaching presence. And it sort of felt like maybe it was going to be a bit of an inevitability at some point.

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In the last week of November, I started feeling unwell. I was a little bit naïve at the start. I was feeling under the weather, only realizing now that they were early-onset COVID symptoms of what I believe to be the delta variant—it was still dominant at the time—like not feeling yourself for a couple of days before the other, more typical COVID symptoms. I noticed the fatigue, just an off feeling, and that was the beginning of it.

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I woke up one morning and I really wasn’t feeling well, and I thought that I would just take a sick day to rest. I thought I’d picked up a cold or something. I went to the pharmacy to get an antigen test just for peace of mind. I didn’t even do it immediately. I was having my breakfast. I was eating some grapes that had been discounted in the supermarket, and I remember thinking, Oh, no. No wonder they were discounted. They’re so bland. I can’t taste them. Which was, in hindsight, very much a COVID symptom. And then I did my antigen test very shortly afterward and it immediately came back positive. Got the strong red line in the test section of it. I got the double lines.

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In Ireland, they had lifted the ban on indoor events, so I had gone to a couple of different concerts. I would imagine it was probably at one of those I picked up the virus because that would’ve been indoor crowds and not seated. So it was like being back in a crowd again. I can’t say for sure, but I’d imagine that it was. Several of my friends who had been to the same series of concerts tested positive as well, along the same sort of timeline. So when we get our kind of COVID detective hats on, we trace it back to that week of gigs. A bit of a price to pay for live music with that.

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It was a pretty book-standard case of COVID—lost the taste, lost the smell, extreme fatigue, flu-like symptoms. I had a cough, persistent exhaustion. One of my ears weirdly got blocked for about a week or two, so my hearing was kind of affected. It was a pretty bad dose. I couldn’t even walk up the stairs without getting out of breath. I’d be speaking on the phone or sending a voice note and I’d be lying on my bed and I’d get out of breath. It was very hard to breathe. Thankfully, it was never quite that worrying, but I definitely had to be very careful doing any sort of activity. That cleared up relatively quickly, I think after a week.

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I’m very fortunate in that I’m very young and healthy. I don’t have any underlying conditions and I’ve actually never really had like a proper flu in my life. So it was a bit of a wake-up call. And then I got my PCR test through the HSE, which is the health service here in Ireland, and yeah, confirmed COVID. So I followed all the protocol and isolated myself for like 10 days.

The last day of my isolation was Dec. 3. It was a Friday. I reentered the world. After I was out of isolation, I went back to my exercise, like yoga and cycling. I did notice some brain fog. I’m a Ph.D. student, and I found just going back into that mode of thinking and writing and analyzing was very difficult, but it got a little bit easier each day. I took my time with it and my supervisor was very supportive. So it was grand compared to some of the horror stories I was hearing with colleagues and friends and people just variously writing about long COVID and the long effects.

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And then I suppose that brings us up to literally only about two and a bit weeks later. I was officially recovered on Dec. 3, and then around about the 20th, 21st of December, I started feeling a little bit off again. I chalked it down to being exhausted by the end of term, things wrapping up for the Christmas break, and overall pandemic fatigue. The weather is always very cold in Ireland at that time of year, so chalked it down as general burnout.

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Then on Tuesday, the 21st, I was feeling a bit sinus-y. I just felt congested in my nose and I started feeling a little bit paranoid that it was a little bit similar to when I had COVID the first time. I put my fears to bed and then I woke up the next morning and I felt quite under the weather. I did an antigen test and it was negative, which was interesting. I was like, OK, I must be fine. So I had a normal day. I went to yoga. I went in and did my studies, wrapped up for the term pretty much. And then that evening, I was seeing a friend who said that he wasn’t feeling too well at the time. I had happened to have a packet of antigen tests in my bag, because my university, Trinity College Dublin, they gave out a packet of free antigens to every student because we have a lot of international students. I gave him an antigen test and he was negative. So then I was hanging out with him for the evening. That was very normal.

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The next morning, I woke up just feeling tired and very under the weather. I did another antigen test at noon. It was negative. I was like, OK, it must be fine. At that point, I was getting ready to move back to my parents’ house over Christmas to celebrate with them. I was packing my bags, but feeling this extreme fatigue. I got to my family home and went to bed really early, like at 9, and slept for like 12 hours. I woke up still feeling weird. And then on Christmas Eve morning, I did an antigen test and it was positive. My friend who I’d seen on Wednesday also continued to feel unwell, did an antigen test on Christmas Eve morning, and it also came back positive for him.

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Christmas Eve is also my father’s birthday, so it was like a double whammy. I just basically said to my family, “Look, I’ve just returned a positive antigen, so I’m going to stay in my room. I’m going to make sure that all of you do antigen tests as well.” So then all of us were taking antigen testing every day. Thankfully, thus far, my parents have been OK, but it was a strange Christmas, just like alone in my childhood bedroom. My family were very good and they dropped me dinner and were talking to me through the door, but in Dublin and especially in Ireland, we have a huge spike at the moment, as is kind of the surge everywhere. Every person that I talk to seemed to either have someone in their house with COVID or to be experiencing something similar. There was a lot of lockdown Christmases and isolation Christmases in Ireland this year. It’s very strange.

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I called my doctor after I got my positive antigen test on Christmas Eve and I was lucky to just catch her before she clocked off for the holidays. I said, “Look, after two consecutive days of negative antigens when I was feeling under the weather, I still feel under the weather and I’ve just got a positive antigen and a friend I was with during the week has also tested positive on antigen and he has symptoms.” And my GP said, “If you’ve got mild symptoms and you’re returning a positive antigen, I’m going to send you for a PCR.” She looked at my record and she said, “You just had COVID as well, didn’t you?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m only actually recovered just barely three weeks. Is it possible that I’ve been reinfected, or do you think potentially my antigens are showing up like previous infection?” She said, “To be honest, because omicron is so new, we only have about two weeks of data. I can’t give you a definitive answer. But I’ve spoken to several people with what I suspect are reinfection rates or cases of reinfection along the same sort of timeline as you. I think that omicron doesn’t factor in delta antibodies in the way that previous variants, you’d have protection from them. It’s unlucky, but it’s definitely possible.” She sent me for a PCR test and I got one a good few days later, and it came back positive. That was her theory. Obviously, I can’t prove that it was delta and then omicron, but all the symptoms are pretty consistent with both.

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There definitely were differences between my infections. The second one—the one my doctor and I suspect was omicron—I found a lot milder. I had a sore throat. I was a bit sniffly, a bit sneezy, felt very, very tired, but nowhere near as flattened as I’d felt with delta, where I was forced to stay in bed for a week. When my doctor listened to my symptoms, she said she thought that it sounded as if I’d been unlucky and contracted omicron, which had just become dominant and set a record for new cases in Ireland when I got sick. It seems that the reinfection rate is actually a lot shorter than we thought. It’s all anecdotal for the moment, but I think the doctor networks particularly in Ireland seem to be reporting higher reinfection rates than ever thought possible.

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I planned to take the boost the moment it became available. At the moment, they’re working their way towards my age category. I’m 27, so it might be another while, but then the regulations here at the moment are that if you had COVID, you have to wait for three months before getting your booster. So when I recovered from delta, I’d originally then planned to look into getting my booster around February. But now, because of having likely omicron, I think it’ll be March. But the moment I’m eligible to get my booster, I’ll absolutely get it.

I feel quite lucky in that my second dose has been mild and very manageable. My other housemate who had avoided COVID when I had it before, and when my previous housemate had it, she then tested positive via antigens on Christmas Day and just got her PCR confirmed as well that she’s got COVID. So there is just no avoiding it, I think.

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