Dozens of Manitobans have battled COVID-19 for a second — and even third time — this spring. The Free Press spoke with three of them about how they got reinfected and what they want the public to know.
Elisha Dacey calls herself a medical marvel. After staying COVID-free for 21 months, she’s had three infections since Christmas.
"It’s like I’m trying to catch all (of the) variants," she quipped as she occasionally stopped to cough during a phone interview this week.
"It’s been kind of a whirlwind."
Dacey left journalism in February to work in communications after two years of covering the pandemic in Manitoba.
She adhered to the advice offered in an untold number of health officials’ news conferences by wearing a high-quality mask, avoiding crowded areas and limiting her contacts.
Her husband works in a daycare, so the couple was extra-vigilant and managed to elude the virus until late December.
"Every sniffle, every cough, we were in line at the drive-thru to get tested," Dacey said.
At Christmas, she limited her contacts to the regular bubble of her grandmother and aunt who live nearby. Seeing long lineups at Winnipeg vaccination supersites, they travelled to Steinbach to get booster shots. That’s where Dacey believes they were exposed.
Dacey said she was tired and had a fever, but recovered a few days after testing positive on a rapid test.
Round 2 came in early April, as the virus swept through her husband’s daycare. She was asymptomatic, but tested positive and stayed home. He tested positive, as well.
The third time was much worse. She started coughing last week, and stayed home for two days, at which point she tested positive on a rapid test.
"I couldn’t believe it, frankly," she said. "The third time around it’s really kicking my butt…. I was dizzy, nauseous, (had a) fever, very tired — and then it settled into really bad headache and sinus pressure."
Dacey’s daughter, who attends high school, got her first infection when Dacey was sick for the third time. Dacey is puzzled by the fact her daughter and husband weren’t infected each time as she was; she had asthma as a child but no recent ailments that she figures made her more vulnerable.
"I just got lucky, if lucky’s the word we can use," she said. "It is frustrating, because as far as I know, I did everything right,"
Dacey wants people to focus on the fact she’s had relatively mild symptoms, instead of homing in on the three infections even though she’s triple-vaxxed.
"I’m lucky; I got all of my vaccinations. I have not even come close to thinking I need to go to a hospital. It’s just been basically a bad cold for me," she said.
"I can’t imagine getting COVID three times and not being vaccinated."
Reed Makayev was about to get vaccinated both times he caught COVID-19.
Makayev works in the film industry and has to wear a mask and perform rapid tests up to three times a week.
He shared a ride with a colleague a year ago; they kept their masks on and had the windows down. His first vaccine appointment was just days away.
His colleague fell ill the next day, and Makayev’s nose started to run. Before long he developed severe body aches, but they lasted only a couple of days.
"Had I not known it was COVID, I would have thought it’s just a cold that’s fairly bad, but nothing out of the ordinary," said Makayev, who then rode out the two-week isolation period.
Almost a year later, with two doses in his system, few restrictions and Omicron circulating, Makayev’s partner tested positive on April 10 after attending a concert. Makayev’s employer moved him into a hotel, hoping he could still show up to work, but he got sick two days later.
"It was a lot harder second time around; the sinus congestion was unbearable. Not just a runny nose, but a full-on throbbing headache, and the body aches were much worse," he said, adding he dealt with brain fog for a week after he tested negative.
Bizarrely, he had planned to get his third shot the day he got sick again. Now, he’ll have to follow the provincial guidance to wait three months after an infection.
"I’m planning to get my booster… as soon as I’m available to, before it has a chance to reinfect a third time, because God forbid that happens," he said.
As a virologist, Julie Lajoie knows far more about the novel coronavirus than most Winnipeggers. Yet even she was stunned when COVID made a second visit to her home, barely a month after it first invaded.
"When my oldest started to be sick, I was like, ‘There’s no way it’s COVID again,’" said Lajoie.
Her first infection occurred around March 6, and seemed to come via a daughter who attends daycare.
The two had some gastrointestinal symptoms, and tested positive on rapid-antigen tests for about five consecutive days.
The second infection began April 3, and it was significantly worse.
Lajoie had a runny nose, cough, headaches and muscle pain. She and her two kids kept testing positive, between nine and 15 days.
"There is a lot of community transmission, so we really need to be really careful," said Lajoie, who questions the province’s decision to lift its mask mandate.
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Ten days after being cleared of the virus, both her kids started throwing up. A local pediatrician explained that it’s become a somewhat common phenomenon as of late; some researchers are looking into whether this is related to COVID-19.
Lajoie noted that scientists are still learning about the virus, with evidence suggesting it migrates to the gastrointestinal tract where viral proteins might linger for months, even if people are no longer sick or excreting viral particles in their stool.
Some research has pointed to a link between COVID-19 infections and inflammatory bowel disease. Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, warned last week that symptoms that linger for months, known as long COVID, could put serious strain on health-care systems.
"We have to stop saying Omicron is mild; it can have an impact and lead to long COVID," said Lajoie, who is particularly concerned about unvaccinated children.
"Cases and re-infection are occurring. The numbers seems to say we are trending down the hill — but it looks like a really slow decline, and hospitalizations are still high. There are still lots of deaths every week."
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In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"
As an expert in viruses, Julie Lajoie says there are three major factors that can lead to someone getting reinfected with COVID-19.
First off are variants — the Omicron variant that is currently circulating produces particles in slightly different shapes than previous variants such as Delta, or the original Wuhan strain.
The different shapes can delay the time it takes the immune system to recognize the virus. Antibodies (from vaccines, or after recovering from an earlier version of the virus) might have a lag in reacting, at which point the virus is already spreading throughout your body.
“You do build a small immune response; it’s not great, but you do get one,” Lajoie said.
The same goes for Omicron’s numerous sub-variants, such as BA.2 and BA.4 — it’s possible that recovering from one of those strains leaves your body slow to react to another form.
“Omicron is a really good at escaping our immune response, even if you’re double-vaccinated or have that booster,” said Lajoie.
“People who got their booster in December or the end of November — we are already six months in, so their immunity is waining quite a bit,” Lajoie said.
Secondly, your immune system, in general, can be under strain from unrelated factors. If you’re battling a cold, or haven’t been sleeping or eating well, that can delay an effective immune response.
Lastly, infection involves viral load.
Having a longer exposure to someone who is shedding the virus can increase your chance of contracting it, especially if they happen to excrete large amounts of the virus. That could be a matter of them being at their peak contagious period during the infection, or just someone who genetically happens to shed more virus.
“I strongly encourage, if you are able to get that fourth dose, to go get it. It really makes a big difference on protection against severity — and also, again, infection itself for the first few weeks,” Lajoie said.
She noted that people who have an infection tend to fight it off, without that same infection resurfacing. One exception is very ill patients who take the antiviral treatment Paxlovid, which can suppress COVID-19 in order for the patient’s immune system to build up an adequate response; when that medicine clears, the virus can re-emerge as it’s being fought.
But otherwise, the vast majority of people who get infected do neutralize the virus. That means that if you’ve tested negative on a few rapid tests, and then suddenly start testing positive, you’ve probably contracted an entirely separate infection.
“If your rapid test is showing as two lines, that means you’re contagious,” Lajoie noted.