She’s been tested so many times that Sarah-Laurence Côté says the nurses at the testing centre have started rooting for her.
“They recognize me,” Côté says. “They say ’let’s hope it’s negative this time!’”
The 20-year-old nursing student from Mirabel, Que., has tested positive for COVID-19 eight times over four months, despite not having any symptoms of the virus since mid-May. She’s been forced to do her classes online, and has stopped doing shifts at a Montreal seniors’ residence where she works as an orderly.
Côté believes she contracted the virus while working at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in the first weeks of the pandemic.
“The resident who I think I got it from passed away,” Côté says. “It’s very sad. It’s very hard.”
Most COVID-19 patients who test positive are simply told to quarantine at home for 14 days before returning to work. But as a health care worker, Côté was told she needed two negative tests before she could go back to the seniors’ residence. She hasn’t been able to get one.
Infections disease expert Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an epidemiologist with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, says what’s showing up in Côté’s tests are likely dead and inactive viral particles.
“There are still little bits of genetic material being detected,” he says. “But I suspect if you take her swabs and look at how much of the virus is actually there, it would be below the level that we consider infectious.”
After her first positive test on May 6, Côté spent three weeks quarantined with her boyfriend. They were nervous he would contract the virus, but he didn’t. Côté then moved back home with her parents and grandparents. The family was careful to keep her separate, going so far as to seal off air ducts to the area where she was living downstairs.
Despite repeated positive tests, public health officials did determine Côté wasn’t contagious and gave Côté permission to return to work in mid-June. She also started the semester at her nursing school.
But after another positive test last week, doctors told her she’d had the virus so long that they considered it a “re-infection.”
When she told the nursing school, she was asked to stay home for 14 days. She says the department also sent home 50 other students because she’d been at the school.
“They asked them to quarantine for two weeks, or come back with a negative test — even after I explained my whole story from the first day,” she says.
Côté’s also off work again, uncertain when she’ll be allowed back.
Dr. Chakrabarti says cases like Côté’s are rare, but not unheard of. In fact, the longer the pandemic goes on, the more science is learning about the virus and how to test for it.
Chakrabarti says after six to eight weeks, most patients have a low viral load, meaning they’re no longer contagious. He says that’s one of the reasons health departments no longer ask for negative tests before allowing patients to return to work.
“The yes/no or positive/negative test isn’t as helpful anymore,” Chakrabarti says. “We’re trying to look at methods where we can find out how positive it is.”
Côté misses work, and is nervous about how her studies will be affected, but she knows things could be worse. When she was working as an orderly, she saw COVID-19 rip through the seniors’ residence.
As for the repeated tests, Côté says people have asked her why she keeps going back. She says it’s not just about her.
“It’s about the safety of everyone I work with, the residents I care for, and the students I go to school with,” she says. “I don’t want to risk anyone getting sick because of me.”