Looking back a month ago, to the end of March, it seems clear I was heading for a fall. Springtime in Prague always plays havoc with my health. I have seasonal allergies and the (admittedly beautiful) budding of the flowers and trees usually kicks off some mild asthma and a sore throat. Every few years, those allergy symptoms morph into something more serious, like a bad case of sinusitis or even bronchitis.
Stress also plays a role, and this was the most stressful March I can remember (a worthy competitor to March 2020). News of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the mass exodus of millions of Ukrainians kicked off a string of sleepless nights. Around that same time, my landlord unexpectedly informed me that she had found new tenants for my office and that I would have to vacate my workspace of seven years within a few weeks. That led to lots of frantic, last-minute searching for new digs and trying to line up movers and construction people (as well as hours of packing up boxes of dusty books and reams of old letters, papers and articles).
Sometime around the first of April -- though I was still in denial about Covid -- I started to feel genuinely very sick. In addition to the usual allergy symptoms of a runny nose and sore throat, I felt breathless and dizzy and experienced strange nerve/muscle twinges in my legs at night. I later learned that all three are classic early-warning signs of Omicron. It’s strange how the mind works. At the time, I remember thinking that maybe I had some kind of early-onset “restless-leg syndrome.”
On Saturday April 2, I took a Covid antigen test at a testing center in Prague that came back negative (as early-Covid antigen tests often do). The negative result cheered me for a day, but after the symptoms persisted and the sore throat got steadily worse, I booked a PCR test for the following Monday. That one came back positive (in the form of a scary text message from the Prague regional hygiene station). After all of those months and years of hiding out, Omicron had finally found me.
My initial reaction on receiving my test result was some version of “oh crap, I have Covid!” but then I immediately began wracking my brain to try to recall anyone I might have come into contact with and needed to alert to get tested. Two days before, on Saturday, April 2, I had met up with a carpenter at my new office to install some bookcases. I typed out an embarrassing text to him and a few others to inform them of my positive test and to express my hope that they didn’t get sick too. Knock on wood. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think I passed along Omicron to anyone else.
Over the next few days, a bunch of different -- conflicting -- thoughts about Covid entered my mind. I felt angry at myself for somehow letting my guard down in March, as the ‘official’ Covid count in Prague dropped and people increasingly met up mask-less at parties and cafes. I had fully (and maybe foolishly) bought into the hype that Omicron was receding (just as health authorities in nearby Germany and Austria were seeing an explosion in cases in their own countries). I knew that didn’t make sense on its face, but I reasoned that if everyone believed it was safe to socialize in public, well, it must be okay (social cues can be very powerful). I learned later that the official statistics in Prague had been deceptive. While it’s true the number of reported cases was going down, many cases were simply going unreported. In addition, wastewater tests carried out in mid-April indicated that Omicron was still circulating widely throughout the city. Indeed, the level of virus in the water was comparable to November 2021, when the Czech Republic was slammed by the Delta variant.
I also felt pangs of irrational regret for all the weeks and months (and now years) I’d spent in lockdown. I thought about all of the times I cancelled plans, all the evenings I spent home alone, all the hours I wasted worrying over some incidental contact in the metro or in a shop and wondered whether I might have contracted Covid. I took my temperature more times in 2020 and 2021 than in all of the previous years combined. What was the point of any of this if I was just going to get Covid anyway?
I wrote “irrational” above because, of course, those thoughts were unfounded. I’m very thankful that my own Covid came well after the vaccines had been developed and the virus itself had evolved into something that, while uncomfortable and a little scary, certainly wasn't life-threatening. Many people were far less fortunate.
My positive test was also, oddly, a reminder of my own mortality – but in a different sense. I had blithely begun to believe that I was somehow “immune” from Covid – much in the same way that I can’t imagine I’ll ever have heart disease or a stroke or get into a traffic accident or fall off a ladder. Those things happen to other people. That “pozitivní” on my PCR test, though, served as a refresher course in the overall randomness of the cosmos and the fact that no one, actually, is special or immune from anything.
The good news is that for many people, probably more than half of all people who get Omicron, the virus does appear to be relatively manageable and short-lived. After my diagnosis, as I rested in bed, I reached out on social media to find fellow Omicron sufferers. In the process, I discovered a distinct, lucky cohort of friends who were feeling ill but not in any way incapacitated. They were experiencing symptoms, like a low-grade fever or cough or some digestive problems, but nothing that extra sleep and a few tabs of Paralen (acetaminophen) couldn’t knock out.
I also discovered another relatively large group of people for whom, like me, Omicron was proving to be more serious. We found ourselves texting back and forth messages like, “WTF, I though Omicron was supposed to be mild!?”
My initial symptoms of a scratchy throat and strange nerve pains in my legs quickly gave way to what was by far the worst sore throat I can remember. Unlike most sore throats, where the pain appears to be located on one side of the throat or the other, this throat pain was precisely in the center. It didn’t respond at all to aspirin, honey, ginger or salt-water gargles. A friend, and fellow Omicron sufferer, described it like swallowing pieces of broken glass. The sore throat lasted about five days before fading away, only to be replaced by sinus congestion, facial pressure, ear pain and ringing in the ears.
At around the end of the first week, I developed a persistent cough and something that felt like bronchitis (though only in the very top of my chest). For that first week of Omicron, I’d been so focused on the sore throat, I only realized later that I also lost my sense of smell and taste. The bronchitis lasted through the second week, and then gradually both it and the cough faded away.
As I type these words now, it’s been nearly three weeks since my positive test. My throat is clear and I’m no longer coughing, though my ears are ringing like a high-pitched air-raid siren and my senses of taste and smell have only come back around 50%. Cinnamon is my bellwether. In the early days, I couldn’t smell or taste it. Now I can easily detect it with my nose, though from a spoon it still tastes like swallowing grains of sand. My voice is at least an octave lower.
I was at the doctor’s yesterday for a follow-up check-up, and she assured me that my symptoms had been relatively common for the “bad” version of Omicron, but that I was definitely on the mend. The ear-ringing should die down in time; the loss of taste and smell is likely only temporary. I’ve also just returned from a Covid testing center, where a negative antigen test showed I’m now free of the virus and no longer contagious. (From what I’ve been told, PCR tests are best for detecting Covid at the start of an infection; antigen tests are best for gauging the end of the illness). I’m actually elated.
For readers here who’ve never had Covid, I sincerely wish you continued good luck in avoiding the virus (I was once like you and I envy your good fortune). If you happen to contract Omicron or some future variant, I certainly hope it’s the milder kind.
If you happen to go down the sore throat, sinus and bronchitis path, as I did, you can feel reasonably assured (if you are vaxxed and boosted) that the symptoms will resolve in time. Obviously, it’s best to consult a doctor as soon as you can to identify what’s wrong and how best to treat it. My own Covid diagnosis came too late after the onset of symptoms (six days) for me to qualify for the new generation of antiviral drugs that may have lessened the severity of the illness. As I never developed any symptoms of a bacterial infection, my doctors also never prescribed an antibiotic.
I can’t say for sure whether antivirals or antibiotics, or any other treatments, would have helped. In any case, I’m up off the mat now and looking forward to a much better month ahead.