My coronavirus diary | Making the first calls

Kim Whitaker
Kim Whitaker

After the call confirming my positive test, everything changed. Our doctor briefed us to make a contact list, and told us that the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NICD) would call us the next day and that they would also make contact with the people on the list.

My coronavirus diary | A swab halfway to my brain and then the call: ‘You are positive’

The dreaded phone call

Everyone I had contact with I had to call and explain: “Hi (name). My test result for Corona has unfortunately come back positive. This means you will need to go into self-quarantine for 14 days.

”I was not in self-quarantine for a few hours on the day I returned from my overseas trip. The result was that more than 20 people and their families from my office needed to self-quarantine. The whole school closed down. The waiter at the restaurant we went for an early dinner had to go into self-quarantine. I had to call parents of the children whom I had picked up from school that day. They also run their own businesses, and are now living in self-quarantine. 

The worst was the phone call to our nanny, whom I had seen briefly the morning I came back from Germany. We were concerned about her husband who had been sickly in the past. In self-quarantine, how would she get groceries delivered? (It’s not like the Checkers app or Uber Eats delivers there.) How was she to explain to neighbours and relatives they can’t pop in like usual? What unfolded in the next few days for our nanny warrants a full explanation, and I will write about this in a separate diary entry. 

Calm and professional

The Western Cape Health department called the next day, and were amazing. The lead doctors spoke to me calmly and explained the protocol. I was to stay isolated within my house (stay in a separate room and have the family bring me food) and maintain strict cleaning protocols with contaminated items. The doctor kept talking about how to manage “the disease” – it sounded strange to be talking about a disease when I didn’t feel sick. 

They also made contact with my contact list and airplane register, and are following up daily to inquire about symptoms – luckily for us, they remain mild. The Western Cape Health Department team are calm and professional; they helped communicate with the principal of our nanny's school and dropped off masks for me at home.

What I realised soon after was that many still did not understand the extent of self-quarantine, never mind self-isolation. In fact, until the Western Cape Health department called the next day, neither did we really.

Fight or flight

As news of my positive status started to spread, I realised there were two ways in which people respond under threat: Fight, or flight. Some texted me words of strength and resilience, positivity and encouragement: the fighters. Others texted me about how and where to get tested, and how they could travel back to a place of safety: the flighters.

I have an emotional response to both. Mostly, I am worried about people not understanding the gravity of moving from one place to another, and the knee-jerk reaction to get tested. My GP checked in, and we chatted about my symptoms. My symptoms remain mild: a dry cough, body aches in the morning, loss of smell and taste; and shortness of breath in the beginning. Yesterday I had a mild headache; none of us has had a fever, yet.

Had I not tested positive, I would never have stayed away from work. We would have gone for family dinner on Wednesday night, with my 92-year-old granny, and aunts and uncles. While healthy people are mildly affected, I am still a carrier and I could really dangerously affect the vulnerable in my community if I don’t stay in isolation. I feel relieved we went into self-quarantine so quickly, and crushing guilt at the idea of how things could have gone wrong if I had carried on as normal. I chatted to my GP about the sudden rush to be tested, and concerned people messaging me about where to get tested 

My GP's reply 

My GP shared the following information with me: GPs and hospitals are flooded by calls and visits by people whom we refer to as the "well-worried". We get it, you're anxious. The NICD – with some of our country's brightest medical minds – and our public health authority have a CASE definition, which we as doctors and labs have to follow. You may be rich or feel entitled to a test; you may even consider lying about your symptoms; you may feel extremely anxious. More likely you're well-meaning and are concerned about all your loved ones, your clients, your elderly neighbours.

As it currently stands, we have to follow the NICD suspected case definition. For the general population (not health care workers), that means:

  • You must have some symptoms of a flu-like illness. (Only a blocked nose does not count.) But this would be in conjunction with having:
  • Travelled abroad or you must have been in close contact with a known positive case. (In doctor speak: you have to have clinical and epidemiological criteria to be tested for Covid-19.)

There are a number of reasons why we can't test everyone who:

  • Has flu-like symptoms, or
  • Has travelled abroad, or
  • Has been in close contact with a positive coronavirus case.

We don't have enough test kits for all those people. If you are tested while you have no symptoms (regardless of whether you smooched your boyfriend who has tested positive or if you just arrived back from Milan), you are more than likely to test negative. However, this does not mean that you will stay negative; you could develop symptoms a few days later. A negative result while you have no symptoms will give you a false sense of safety and you will stop your self-quarantine before the 14 day quarantine period has been completed, thus potentially infecting other people.

The bottom line is that if you have travelled internationally, or if you have been exposed to a person who is a confirmed positive case, you must self-quarantine for 14 days. If during this time you develop symptoms, you will fit the criteria for testing, and you will be tested.

Taking it day by day

After a full week in isolation, my children and husband are still feeling strong, and are showing no obvious symptoms. We check our temperature a few times a day, to ensure they don’t go over 37.5 degrees Celsius. We decided that self-isolation within the house (me in a separate room at all times) was not an option with our young children, and have instead set up hygiene protocols to keep the house as clean as possible to try minimise the chances of infection.

Health care workers and my GP continue to monitor my symptoms and my family's health daily, and are checking in with my contact list daily too. The directive changes daily, and the health care professionals on the ground are doing their best to manage us, their patients, within the new frameworks.

At first, self-isolation was 14 days, with two successful negative tests needed to exit self-isolation. The new directive is no further testing for positive patients, but in the case of a family, 21 days self-isolation if one family member tested positive. At first we felt trapped at the idea of another week inside our house, but a moment later it dissipated as we acknowledged we were actually really enjoying the family time. 

Why am I sharing my experience?

I still cannot believe I tested positive. I feel almost completely healthy, and we are managing well under the circumstances. I want my community to know that having the virus is scary at first, but it’s manageable. If you are healthy, there is no need to be afraid. The bigger issue is considering the sick and elderly in our community, and how to keep them away from people like me.

Speaking out about life in quarantine has been a wake-up call for many of my friends and acquaintances, who suddenly know someone who has tested positive: the pandemic becomes real for them, and they see the world a little differently. Yesterday I found out one of my cousins, and two friends in South Africa (whom I have not seen in a long time) have also tested positive.

As the virus spreads, I wish I had hugged my granny one last time, I worry about our nanny who is in self-quarantine in the township, my almost retired parents who are preparing to help as doctors when the hospitals get full and my brave staff who are still hosting stranded travellers scrambling to get home. 

Kim Whitaker is the CEO and co-founder of Once Travel – a youth travel company that operates experiences and hub hotels for adventurous travellers and storytellers. She has set up a fund for the Team of Once in Cape Town and Once in Joburg, where friends of Once can contribute

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