My painful excursion into the world of dueling infections started on a Tuesday afternoon with a scratchy throat and a mild-yet-annoying cough. I chalked it up to fall in Kentucky, where sunny afternoons in the mid 70s can be followed by freezing temperatures at night. I’m no stranger to respiratory infections, having lived for years with the triple threat of allergies, asthma, and low immunity.
On Wednesday morning, I was having coughing fits that made me dizzy. I went to see my doctor, who assured me that I almost certainly didn’t have Covid-19, even though our county had been considered a “red” one for more than a month and the case count was climbing.
I was a bit suspicious of my doctor’s reassurance because I had learned that morning of a student who had tested positive for Covid-19 the week before in the high school where I am a Spanish and social studies teacher.
As a precaution, I was tested for strep, influenza, and Covid-19. I was shocked when the nurse let me know that I had tested positive for the flu, and I left with a prescription for Tamiflu and instructions to stay home for a week.
On Thursday, I was tired and achy — both mild flu-like symptoms — but was able to complete all my work virtually. Aside from the occasional coughing fit, one of which brought me to my knees, I believed I just had the flu.
The next day I got a call that I had also tested positive for Covid-19. I should have expected that news, because the night before I had lit a pumpkin-scented candle but didn’t realize until later that I hadn’t smelled its fragrance.
I was extremely scared. But I was also angry. I was angry at my school for not following state recommendations to keep students home and use remote learning, at my doctor for downplaying the increasing threat of the virus, at my family members and friends who brushed off my concerns, and even angry at myself for creating a false sense of security that using an N95 mask, an air purifier, and a plexiglass shield in my classroom would keep me safe.
I was angry, and still am, that the response to a worldwide pandemic has become so deeply politicized in the U.S. and that even though I took every precaution, it still wasn’t enough. I began taking nebulizer treatments four times a day to keep my lungs clear and began taking zinc and vitamin D.
Over the weekend, it was difficult to know which symptoms were due to Covid-19 and which ones were due to the flu. The coughing began to slowly improve, and I had a temperature above 99.9° only once, though I experienced extreme fatigue, chills, aches, a severe headache, and diarrhea.
By Monday, the coughing had stopped and my fever was down, but I felt even worse than before. I believe that was the point where I was over the flu and Covid-19 was taking over. I slept so much that my sister dropped in on my Alexa because I didn’t answer calls or texts for hours at a time. I didn’t leave my bedroom except to use the bathroom and drank room-temperature orange Gatorade Zero that my mom had bought in bulk and I kept next to my bed. Trips beyond the bathroom were carefully planned for efficiency as they required all of my strength and a nap immediately after.
I watched TV, but found I couldn’t focus or would fall asleep. After trying to watch the first episode of Lovecraft Country four times, I resorted to browsing TikTok or re-watching The Office as I couldn’t keep up with the simplest plot. I had several rounds of severe abdominal pain and experienced a completely new sensation: small tingles that would randomly move throughout my lower and upper abdomen.
Over the next few days, I constantly checked my oxygen saturation, knowing that if it dropped below 93% I would need to go to the hospital. From a starting point of 98%, the pulse oximeter readings crept down to 93% on Wednesday, at which point I was having mild shortness of breath and chest pain when I took a full breath. That said, I was feeling a little better. My doctor ordered a chest X-ray, which I got at a hospital a three-minute drive from where I live. It was normal. I started to take oral steroids, which helped immensely.
It wasn’t until Friday — a full week after I first learned that I had Covid-19 plus the flu — that I made the move from my bed to the couch. It felt like a momentous occasion.
During that week, I had lost 12 pounds. After a few bites of food, I would feel nauseous and completely full, and there were days when I ate nothing even though my family and friends delivered food to my porch. It took me two full days to eat one donut, taking just one or two bites at a time.
During the time when I felt the worst, anxiety compounded my physical symptoms. I wondered every time I fell asleep if I would wake up wheezing or unable to breathe. I am incredibly grateful that my respiratory symptoms were mild and that I was able to get through it without hospitalization.
The day I was diagnosed with Covid-19, the news was full of the record-breaking number of cases: more than 85,000 that day. Now, the record is nearly 140,000, and increasing by the day.
I still don’t know for sure how or when or where I contracted Covid-19 or the flu, though I suspect it was at school. I haven’t been in a grocery store or eaten in a restaurant since March because of my low immunity and asthma. My only close contacts have been my mother and my sister, both of whom tested negative for Covid-19 and have had no symptoms. I always wear a mask and use an N95 respirator at school.
The simple fact is that we still have a lot to learn about this airborne virus: how it is transmitted, how it is best treated, what its long-term effects are, and more.
Now that I’m on the other side, I’m feeling better physically and am far less anxious. I take no pride in knowing that I’m special: it’s rare to be diagnosed with both Covid-19 and the flu, especially when taking significant precautions for Covid-19 and receiving a flu shot. While I am teaching virtually for the rest of the semester and still am following public health guidance, I have a sense of relief — for now. I can’t wait to be back in the physical classroom with my students, and I am hoping that any immunity will last long enough until I can get vaccinated.
No one knows how long immunity to Covid-19 lasts, whether it is 90 days or a year or longer, and I am still worried about potential long-term effects. The fatigue and digestive issues lasted long after quarantine, and I have experienced worrisome chest pain.
To me, the bottom line from my experience is that all of us must be serious about protecting the people around us who need and deserve extra precautions, since protective measures are no guarantee (as I learned the hard way), especially in the face of what looks to be a serious spike in Covid-19 this winter.
Lauren Hines teaches Spanish and social studies in Kentucky.