The first five days of Jill King’s Florida vacation were already not ideal.
When King and her boyfriend arrived in the city of Largo on March 10 for his daughter’s competitive swimming training camp, they had learned the pool had closed. Businesses in the area had started to shut down due to COVID-19, and there wasn’t much for her to do.
But the trip would deteriorate further for King, as the 49-year-old from Burlington, Ont., started to feel sick on March 15.
“Initially, it started with the shortness of breath. It was quite bad, actually. I would walk from kitchen to living room and be totally out of breath, coughing,” she said.
Within a week, King would be diagnosed with COVID-19. But the process of trying to get the care she needed in Canada, along with answers to questions she had about her diagnosis, has been a consistent source of frustration, she said.
U.S. doctors wouldn’t see her
Sick in Florida, King knew she sometimes had mild asthma. But that was usually induced by allergies or exercise — not taking a few steps, she says.
It was three days later when her health started to rapidly decline.
“One morning I woke up, it was really bad. I was really struggling to breathe, so we decided to go to a clinic,” she says. King called her insurance company since she was travelling and visited an urgent care centre on March 18.
No doctor would see King at the clinic to discuss her illnesses, she says, but they did decide to test her for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. She wasn’t told when the results would come in, and she says doctors were dismissive of her and her symptoms. She also says they gave her no instructions on what to do next.
“I said, OK, I’m not getting anywhere here. They don’t want to deal with this at all, I’m getting worse, let’s just go home. And then I can be seen in Burlington because (treatment) wasn’t going to happen in the U.S.,” she said.
But at that point, King and her boyfriend decided they shouldn’t get on a plane, as she might expose others. On March 20, they rented a car and drove back to Ontario, she says.
It took three days to get home. King’s symptoms were getting worse every hour they were in the car.
“I was very, very short of breath. We stopped at a rest stop to go to the bathroom, and it was one where you had to walk across a bridge across a highway to get to the restroom. And I had to stop 10 times along the way to catch my breath. It was getting pretty bad,” she said.
Once King was finally at home in Burlington, she called Telehealth, the health hotline in Ontario. After waiting a few hours, she decided to call her local public health unit instead, and they told her to go to the hospital.
Arriving at the hospital, King says she was told to go home. Only when she insisted that public health had instructed her to go there did a nurse decide to put her through intake and eventually test her for the novel coronavirus, King says.
They also did a blood test, along with a chest X-ray, prescribed her antibiotics for pneumonia and increased her dosage for her puffer, she says.
On March 22, King was informed that tests had come back and confirmed she had a probable case of COVID-19. King’s boyfriend also tested positive but has had a much milder case, she says.
Later that week, King says she was told her test was confirmed positive, and the clinic in Florida also called her to tell her she had a confirmed case.
‘I was feeling really rough’
When she received her diagnosis, King was self-isolating at home. But while trying to fall asleep on the day she received the news she had a probable case, she was in an immense amount of pain and afraid she might not wake up, she says.
“I was feeling really rough. I was by myself, I was feeling pretty scared that I was going to stop breathing. I couldn’t sleep because I was in so much pain,” she said. Other symptoms King was experiencing at the time included blurred vision, shakiness, fatigue, loss of taste and nausea, she says.
King says after contemplating whether to call for hours, she eventually dialed 911 and the operator told her that she didn’t need an ambulance.
“I’m like, as soon as I stand up and walk five feet, I’m out of breath. I’m coughing, I’m lightheaded. And you want me to drive to the hospital?” she said. “It was awful. She made me feel guilty.”
Being told she wasn’t sick enough to come to the hospital made her feel that the health-care system is not prepared to deal with COVID-19 patients, she says.
“I said, OK, this system does not want to deal with this. But how can you not deal with it?” she said.
Global News contacted Halton Region Public Health that oversees the Burlington region and asked about their process for discharging patients and about King’s 911 call. They did not provide at this time.
For King, although she says the nurses and doctors who have provided her with care since she was diagnosed have been incredible — she’s unimpressed with some of the protocols put in place that have left her feeling helpless.
She’s concerned, as 21 days after her diagnosis, public health officials called her to tell her that she’s been discharged and her case is considered “recovered.” This was confusing, as she still had symptoms, and she wasn’t provided with an explanation, she says.
“I said, ‘Actually, I feel worse today than I felt yesterday,’ and she discharged me. And I thought, this is kind of strange. You’ve got a patient telling you they feel worse, and you discharge them?” she said.
There was no second test done to confirm she was no longer positive, she says.
It would be unusual for someone with COVID-19 to transmit the illness weeks after their symptoms start, according to a previous Global News report.
“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,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, in the previous report.
More information about why she was discharged was not provided to her and she still doesn’t feel entirely well, King says. She says she’s decided to remain in isolation for now.
“I’ve been isolated for seven weeks now. Basically, everyone is saying that I’m probably not contagious … but we don’t know that for sure. I don’t know for sure that I’m not going to give it to someone else,” she said.
King recently had blood work done because she still has shakiness and some shortness of breath.
“When I wake up in the morning, I definitely have chest heaviness, like someone is sitting on my chest,” she said.
She hopes that other patients with COVID-19 are heard when they call 911 and that they are explaining more clearly the actions the patient needs to take so they aren’t outside when they shouldn’t be, she says.
“I’ve chosen to isolate myself because I don’t want to give this to someone else. And I’m not even a severe case, I’m a moderate case and I don’t think anyone should go through this,” she said. “There’s so many unknowns that makes it even more scary to deal with.”
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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