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COMMENTARY: How a February ski trip to the Austrian Alps led to a COVID-19 diagnosis

Click to play video 'Coronavirus:  Global News’ Anthony Farnell tested positive for COVID-19 and recounts his experience' Coronavirus: Global News’ Anthony Farnell tested positive for COVID-19 and recounts his experience
Coronavirus: Global News' Anthony Farnell tested positive for COVID-19 and recounts his experience – Mar 23, 2020

In late February, a few friends and I set out for the Austrian Alps on a week-long ski vacation. I’d never skied in Europe before, but from the research I’d done in advance of the trip, I knew this would be something special and memorable.

But I never thought it would be for the reason I’m writing about now.

I arrived home in Toronto on the evening of March 1. The next night I started to feel sick. I had a low-grade fever and my body was aching but I blamed this on the fact that I’d just skied longer and harder and in deeper snow than I ever had before. Either way, I took the following day off to rest, which seemed to do the trick because I felt much better and returned to work the following day.

I remained symptom-free the remainder of that week. At this point, Italy and Iran had become the epicentre of the outbreak but there were few reports about a significant spike in cases in Austria.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus questions answered in Global News primetime special

Late on Monday, March 9 I started to feel sick again. Similar body aches, a slightly higher fever, and this time, shortness of breath, which I knew was a symptom of COVID-19. I called in sick for work, staying home in isolation while waiting to hear back from my doctor.

When my doctor called, he advised me to stay home and rest but said the chance of me being positive for coronavirus was minimal. He advised against taking a test at that time.

I wasn’t convinced so I called my local hospital and Toronto Public Health, and to my surprise, they both sided with my doctor and told me the risk of infection from Austria was minimal and that no test was needed.

I started doing my own research and began to see case numbers increasing from ski resorts in Austria. I also had mental flashbacks to the hundreds of Italians, French, Swiss, Germans and other Europeans with whom I shared cramped gondola rides and remained in close quarters for apres-ski drinks. I became increasingly convinced that I needed to get tested, so on the morning of March 11, I put on a mask and showed up at the Michael Garron Hospital emergency room.

READ MORE: COMMENTARY: What I learned from working at home with kids during coronavirus self-isolation

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When I arrived at the front reception, I described my symptoms and was quickly isolated in a room and told to wait for a doctor. I was asked about my travel history and who I had been in contact with. This led to an uncomfortable couple minutes as the doctor tipped my head back and jabbed a swab deep inside my nose, followed by a second swab in the same nostril.

I was told that they had to go deep or the test wouldn’t work and I’d need to come back in to do it all over again. A few minutes later, a nurse handed me a self-isolation guide and I was told to go home and wait for the results. Two days later, I received a call that I tested positive for COVID-19.

By the time my results came in I was already feeling much better. The fever dissipated, the occasional shortness of breath had improved and the weird sensation of not being able to taste or smell was frustrating, but not debilitating in any way.

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I didn’t have much time to think about what all this meant before Toronto Public Health called, asking how I was feeling, and urgently needing me to retrace my steps over the past couple weeks and recall who I may have crossed paths with. They call this contact tracing and it’s used to let others know that they may have been exposed to the virus and need to self-isolate for 14 days.

This information was also helpful for my colleagues at Global News who I had worked with and potentially exposed to the virus in the previous days.

The regional director of news for Global, Mackay Taggart, was on the Austrian ski trip as well. He, too, had experienced some mild symptoms after returning home. Upon learning the news of my test, he thought it prudent to get tested. His results were also positive.

This sent a number of our Global News colleagues into self-isolation as they were deemed “close contacts” of both Mackay and I.

READ MORE: Your coronavirus questions, answered: Medical experts respond to your COVID-19 concerns

In isolation now for more than 10 days, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this period. By all accounts my experience with the COVID-19 virus has been very manageable, and without much discomfort.

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That said, I am acutely aware of the risks it can pose to anyone in our society, especially those who are elderly or live with compromised immune systems.

I think back often to my flight home from Europe. It was days before the term “social distancing” would be commonplace, and nearly two weeks before the Canadian government would impose a 14-day self-isolation period for those entering the country. Yet still, on that seemingly routine plane ride, I was carrying a potentially deadly virus with me back to my community.

It’s a virus that we now know can only be overcome when we all heed the warning of public health officials, and all do our part to stop the spread.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

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For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.