In retrospect, the Omicron variant came at the worst possible time.
School was in session, the vaccine booster campaign was ramping up and the Christmas break was approaching. For many, there was reason to hope that, after nearly two years of fear and isolation, the end of this pandemic was finally within reach.
But while it initially appeared that the new strain, while highly transmissible, packed a weaker punch than its predecessors, the sheer number of infections soon decimated the workforce and threatened to overwhelm hospitals.
Public health experts tell us this is no time to let down our guard, and to continue with masking, handwashing, self-screening, vaccinations and avoiding large crowds.
These people heeded that advice, but COVID-19 found them anyway.
Michelle Gallant, 33, had just gotten her booster
Michelle Gallant, an educational assistant with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, believes she contracted COVID-19 in the classroom just before the Christmas break.
Gallant got her booster shot that Saturday and started feeling sick the following Tuesday evening. Her children, ages seven and 10, began experiencing the same symptoms — hoarseness, congestion, aches, fever and chills — two days later.
They’re sick and Christmas was ruined because of me being at a high-risk job and bringing it home.– Michelle Gallant
Gallant’s seven-year-old son, who has asthma, became so ill that on Christmas Eve she had to take him to hospital in Almonte, Ont., where the family lives, for a shot of dexamethasone, a medication commonly used to treat croup.
It was a frightening experience for everyone involved, she said. But for Gallant, knowing she’d probably passed COVID-19 on to her kids was the worst part.
“I felt awful. They’re sick and Christmas was ruined because of me being at a high-risk job and bringing it home.”
Last week, Gallant and her two children were still coughing, but on the mend.
Robin Browne, 58, started feeling sick just before Christmas
Ottawa resident Robin Browne began feeling unwell the morning after he and his family got their booster shots, two days before Christmas.
At first he dismissed it as a side effect of the vaccine — he’d had similar reactions to previous doses — but when the fatigue and congestion persisted, he suspected COVID-19. A PCR test proved him right, though he says his symptoms were relatively mild and manageable.
“That was really it. Once that passed I was good,” said Browne, a communications professional with the federal government.
His wife and older son also tested positive, though his younger son, 17, did not. Luckily, neither did Browne’s 92-year-old father, who was staying with the family before moving into a retirement home.
“We needed to be extra careful, so that’s why we got tested,” Browne said.
His father, who got his booster shot at the same time as the rest of the family, had been staying in the basement, and Browne believes that separation, along with careful masking and other precautions, helped prevent him from getting sick.
Dianne Brydon, 66, thought she was being careful
Dianne Brydon isn’t sure where she contracted COVID-19. It could have been at her curling club, where there had been some cases earlier in December, or it might have been when she was out Christmas shopping a few days before her symptoms appeared on Dec. 17.
“I was in and out of about 10 different stores, so it could have been anywhere,” she said. “I thought I was being careful, but apparently not.”
The virus hit her pretty hard, with a sore throat, chest congestion and a “massive, massive headache.”
“I was just down for the count for four days, in bed asleep, sleeping for 12, 14 hours at a time. Just amazing fatigue,” Brydon said.
Don’t get together with people thinking, oh they must be safe, because nobody’s safe with this one.– Dianne Brydon
Her symptoms, which lingered for a full two weeks, included the tell-tale loss of taste and smell, putting a damper on Christmas dinner
Brydon’s husband, 52, fell ill about two days after she did, though his symptoms also included a nagging cough.
“He’s still losing sleep over it,” Brydon said last week.
Both were double-vaccinated and following all public health protocols, including masking and handwashing, when they became ill, Brydon said. They didn’t become eligible for a booster until Dec. 13, and Brydon points out that even if they’d had their third dose it wouldn’t have had time to take effect before they were infected.
Brydon is well aware that many have suffered through worse than she and her husband, but she is concerned about the possibility of long-term health effects.
Her advice to others during the current Omicron wave is to be as careful as possible.
“Don’t get together with people thinking, oh they must be safe, because nobody’s safe with this one.”
Matt Brown, 24, says he got unlucky
Matt Brown said he started feeling a bit “off” around Dec. 13, and decided to go for a PCR test a few days later. His girlfriend had already taken a rapid test that was positive for COVID-19, so when he got his own positive result a couple days later, Brown wasn’t too surprised.
His symptoms — aches and pains, a mild headache and slight cough — subsided after just a few days. Brown attributes his rapid recovery to his youth and physical fitness, and to the fact that he was double-vaccinated.
“Thank God, because I probably would have been a lot sicker than I was,” said Brown, who was not eligible for a booster shot before he fell ill.
I assumed that life was heading back towards normalcy, and obviously we got unlucky.– Matt Brown
Because Brown shares a house in Ottawa’s central Glebe neighbourhood with five roommates, he decided to check himself into one of the voluntary isolation centres provided by the city, and spent the next seven days at the Holiday Inn Express on King Edward Avenue.
Only one of Brown’s roommates — the one with a bedroom on the same floor as him — also tested positive for COVID-19. The other four did not.
“So I’m really confused as to how we got it and they didn’t,” said Brown, who just began a new job as an executive sales recruiter.
“I complied with everything, so I assumed that life was heading back toward normalcy, and obviously we got unlucky.”
Elizabeth Hay, 64, wears two masks everywhere she goes
Former CBC producer Elizabeth Hay thought she was doing everything right. She wears two masks everywhere she goes, is “religious” about handwashing, and even showers and changes her clothes when she gets home from an errand.
Hay and her partner, 75, have been living in virtual isolation on their hobby farm near Carleton Place, Ont.
Nevertheless, on the first Monday of the new year, Hay was out walking her dog when she started feeling unwell. Because she’d been taking such careful precautions, she chalked it up to general fatigue, the cold or her age — anything but COVID-19.
When she got home she brought the horses in, had supper and went to bed. She woke up around 2 a.m. with a “massive headache” and fever, she said.
I thought I was doing everything I possibly could.– Elizabeth Hay
“I couldn’t even comprehend that it could be COVID,” Hay said. She took a Tylenol and went back to sleep.
“By next morning I was in full shakes, fever, not coughing but pretty uncomfortable, and weak as could be,” she said.
Hay’s partner had his booster shot on Christmas Eve, but because she’d been immunized against pneumonia earlier that month, Hay wasn’t yet eligible for hers.
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Hay said apart from a quick trip to Canadian Tire and the grocery store, she’s had zero contact with anyone.
“This variant just seems to be so aggressive. I don’t think you have to have much contact to get it.”
As sick as she’s been, Hay knows the outcome could have been much worse.
“If I caught it and had not been vaccinated, I could be holding up a bed in ICU,” she said.
Hay said from now on, she’ll order her groceries and other necessities online and have them delivered. She advises people to remain diligent.
“I thought I was doing everything I possibly could.”