SHIFT: I have omicron and an insatiable craving for salt and vinegar chips

'We aren't sure what to expect' is never what you want to hear — not from the person flying your plane, or the contractor renovating your house, or the dude making your first latte of the morning, but especially not from a doctor.

Lisa Machado 7 minute read January 17, 2022
hand take potato chips out of bag. I developed a mild cough that lasted about a day, as well as a weird insatiable urge for salt and vinegar chips.

I developed a mild cough that lasted about a day, as well as a weird insatiable urge for salt and vinegar chips. GETTY

Last Wednesday night, I was brushing my teeth before bed thinking that my throat felt funny.

Not sore or raw, just… sticky. The next day was the same, like the insides of my throat were touching — not painful, but definitely unpleasant. Though the possibility that the virus that causes COVID had finally gotten to me briefly crossed my mind, I quickly dismissed it. After all, I was double-vaxxed, hunkering down at home mostly, and extra careful when out. Also, no one around me was sick. Plus, a ‘sticky’ throat was not on the list of symptoms of Omicron, or any other variant of the virus.

But when my daughter woke me up in the early hours of Friday morning to tell me she wasn’t feeling well and I caught sight of the shiny beads of sweat on her forehead, COVID started to feel like more of a possibility. Still though, I couldn’t help trying to make it make sense. After all, my only holiday visit (to my mom’s house) was long enough ago not to fit the supposed two-day incubation time of the variant — and my mom was well. I hadn’t seen anyone outside of my immediate circle, and people that I had heard were sick had tested negative. “There is something going around,” a neighbour said about her family’s recent PCR-negative bout with fevers, body aches and nausea.

I realized that I was pretty happy with the ‘there’s something going around’ explanation. That is, until I fainted on the way to get some Advil for my sweaty offspring, waking up to the taste of blood in my mouth from two cracked lips, a traumatized front tooth, a throbbing nose and my impressively calm son bending over me.

Turns out fainting also doesn’t make onto the list of Omicron symptoms — in fact, just that morning, a runny nose was moved into the top spot as pretty much the most significant indicator of the latest worldwide variant of concern.

After a few hours of worst-casing as to what had caused the black-out — aneurysm, stroke, possibly a brain tumour — I made an appointment with my family’s doctor.

And then I took a rapid antigen test.

You never want to hear, ‘We aren’t sure what to expect’

“We aren’t sure what to expect with this new variant,” he said over the phone later that afternoon after I mentioned the two bright lines that appeared in the test window. “It’s affecting everyone in different ways.”

“We aren’t sure what to expect” is never what you want to hear — not from the person flying your plane, or the contractor renovating your house, or the dude making your first latte of the morning, but especially not from a doctor.

“What we do know is that if you are vaccinated, the symptoms are way less severe for most people, and they last a shorter amount of time than what we have been seeing,” he said, before advising me to drink a lot (water) and rest.

My daughter went on to have a couple of days of an intense headache, sinus congestion and laryngitis — one day, she slept almost an entire 24 hours, making my stomach clench with worry every time I poked my head into her room to check on her. Despite the low odds of severe symptoms, I was well aware of the possibilities.

At the same time, I developed a mild cough that lasted about a day, as well as a weird insatiable urge for salt and vinegar chips. Meanwhile, my son had no signs of infection and tested negative (although we know that false negatives are common with rapid tests). Now a week later, it seems we are mostly through our bout with the variant, safe and sound, thankfully.

But after all that the Healthing team has written about COVID-19 and the pandemic, the umpteen scientific studies we have dissected and the many discussions we have had with medical experts, it’s clear that the world is learning as it goes with this highly contagious variant. And while my family’s tussle with Omicron has so far been mild — like it has been for many others — no one seems to know for sure its potential to leave people with the same devastating long-haul symptoms that have been seen with the other variants.

‘Extremely alarming’

Even infectious diseases specialist Dr. Emilia Liana Falcone, the director of the Long-COVID Research Clinic at the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montreal (IRCM), is unsure — and concerned — given what she has seen over the past two years.

“It’s extremely alarming,” she told CTV News. “Several [patients] who were very high functioning, very healthy, now find themselves in a situation where they just cannot go back to work. They’re more than a year out. And they’re basically taking early retirement in some cases.”

Common complaints include intense fatigue, difficulties concentrating, memory problems, anxiety, and insomnia as well as lack of motivation, shortness of breath, and “post-exertional malaise” — the exhaustion that happens after a person exerts themselves mentally or physically, sometimes taking weeks to recover.

“This isn’t a regular cold,” says Falcone, who is also recovering from recent infection and still struggling with fatigue. “Even individuals who have very mild symptoms or even no symptoms can develop long-term sequelae (after-effects) of COVID,” adding that applies to people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated.

And while I get that the world is buried in an unprecedented health crisis that has experts playing a frustrating game of catch-up, it does feel disheartening, and worrying, that even when you follow all the rules — masking, getting vaccinated, not seeing friends and family, opting for take-out rather than in-person dining — you still get sick.

That said, my family’s experience with COVID has been yet another reminder of the fact that, as much as the phrase “we’re in this together” has been bantered around since this viral nightmare began, anyone who thinks we are all even remotely in the same boat is fooling themselves.

Omicron is not a regular cold

After all, I was only able to know for sure whether or not my kids and I were infected because I could afford a pack of rapid tests. I am also fortunate to have people who care about me — between my mom, friends and thoughtful neighbours, my porch was never without bags of ready-to-eat meals, healthy soups, chocolate, treats and wine. “You’re my first COVID buddy!” a good friend texted.

Plus, I’m lucky to have access to a doctor I trust, who can walk me through the steps of this crazy illness and counsel me on how to care for my children. Without all of these things, getting sick would have been a lot more stressful, scary, and much more difficult to recover from. Also, thankfully, my job allows me to work at home while I isolate — and if things got rough, I have a few sick days. But there are so many people who don’t have even a sliver of these luxuries: last June, a survey of Canadians found that 40 per cent of workers went to work sick at least once, with more than half saying they did so because their employer didn’t offer paid sick leave.

With numbers like that, it’s hard to think the virus and its variants will ever stop spreading.

“Take it day-by-day,” my doctor said when I asked how long my kids and I could expect to feel not great.

Day-by-day. Now that sounds like a more appropriate motto for COVID in 2022.

Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing. She can be reached here.
This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.
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