Although Christian Bermea has tested positive for the novel coronavirus three times since mid-March, that’s not necessarily unusual nor does it mean he’s guaranteed to be contagious, says an infectious disease expert.
The Houston, Texas man said he had felt sick for nearly two months in a video uploaded to Storyful.
Results for the three tests that came back positive were on March 19, April 13 and May 1, he said.
Stories on Bermea’s ordeal has gone viral with multiple U.S. outlets publishing stories about his experiences.
Even though Bermea is uncertain why he continued to test positive, it’s not uncommon to test positive for the virus more than once over a period of weeks, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital.
And just because he still had symptoms and multiple positive tests, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is still infectious nor does it mean he’s been infected again, Bogoch explained.
Continuing to test positive weeks after the initial infection, also isn’t necessarily a cause for alarm, he added.
“If someone tests positive for COVID-19, regardless of their symptoms, and they get that test repeatedly, that test can continue to be positive,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re contagious, that they’re going to necessarily transmit that infection to other people. It doesn’t even mean that they have an active infection at that time. That test can stay positive for weeks and weeks after… It’s not unheard of for that test to stay positive.”
Some people may experience mild symptoms, or more serious symptoms, and test positive. They may receive another positive test two weeks later, even though they feel better, he said.
“That can happen. Sometimes there’s just fragments of genetic material in the back of the nose that will make this test turn positive,” he said. “Even if the person was symptomatic still two weeks later, it’s unusual for people to be able to transmit this infection eight to 10 days after their symptoms start. It’s not impossible, but it’s just not unusual for that test to remain positive for some people.”
Symptoms persisted for weeks.
For Bermea, he first decided to get tested when he started showing known symptoms of COVID-19.
“The symptoms started off what seemed kind of like allergies, so dry cough, sore throat. I would say on the third day of showing symptoms, that was probably the worst day. I had a high fever at about 102 (F),” he said in the video. “I couldn’t even walk to my bathroom, which is down the hall… It felt like I had walked three flights of stairs.”
The test taken on March 18 came back positive the next day. The more extreme symptoms he had, like fever, shortness of breath and chest spasms, started to improve within the next weeks, but some days the same issues would return, he said.
Ultimately, fatigue was the main recurring issue Bermea was still experiencing nearly a month after his first positive test. His doctor sent him in for another test that came back positive on April 13, he said.
“The dry cough was pretty much gone, the shortness of breath was still there, the chest tightness like chest spasms were at random and the fatigue,” he said.
Weeks later, he told his doctor that he was continuing to experience these symptoms, which prompted a third test that came back positive on May 1, said Bermea.
“The symptom fatigue is probably the main one that has been there. I just felt really tired all the time,” he said.
In the video published on May 5, Bermea says he feels better overall but he’s not completely healthy yet. He will be going in to be tested again on May 7 and is hoping to test negative, he said.
Negative test more likely as time passes
The more time goes by from the first onset of symptoms, the more likely another coronavirus test will come back negative, said Bogoch.
Most public health units will say you’re likely OK 10 to 14 days after symptoms start, he said.
“Not everyone is going to recover right away and you can still have persistent symptoms,” he said. “It’s not a clean-cut picture.”
If everyone had access to multiple tests over the same period of time, we’d see more stories like this one, Bogoch said. It’s also unlikely to be a situation where Bermea has been reinfected.
Virus fragments remaining even after a person is no longer infectious is not an uncommon phenomenon in infectious diseases, Bogoch added. With the Zika virus, there were scenarios where some had consistently positive tests for weeks even though they weren’t able to transmit it, he said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
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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