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Think COVID-19 Is No Biggie for the Young and Fit? Read Kendyl’s Story

A 26-year-old trainer in Calgary shares how the virus found her and hit hard.

Andrew Nikiforuk 3 Aug 2020 |

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

As the pandemic surges in many parts of the world, nearly half of all COVID-19 cases in Canada now occur in young people between the ages of 20 and 49.

This is the story of 26-year-old Kendyl Oele, a highly fit Calgary athlete who contracted the virus, based on her diaries she shared with The Tyee.

Friday, July 10

It is six in the morning, and an electric circular fan blows air across a spin class in downtown Calgary. The invitation-only event has attracted 10 participants including Oele, who wears a mask while signing in and out.

The class spends most of the hour “out of the saddle,” working at maximum exertion. Oele removes her mask. The stationary bikes are spaced more than two metres apart.*

At least one of the participants is already infected but is asymptomatic. That individual showers the assembled with clouds of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And it enters the healthy lungs of Oele.

At the end of the day, Alberta reports a two-month high of 77 new cases in the province, while the WHO reports a record daily incidence of 228,102 cases.

Oele, who is preparing to become a personal trainer, does not know it yet, but she is about to become another pandemic statistic: just one of 15 million COVID-19 cases around the world.

Sunday, July 12

At home, Oele receives an alarming email from the spin club along with a text from the instructor of the Friday class. “We have been informed a member of our team has tested positive for COVID-19.” The infected individual worked at the site or “was periodically present between July 9 and July 13.”

The message encourages Oele to “monitor herself for any flu-like symptoms”: fever, cough, aches, trouble breathing.

But Oele feels okay. “I wasn’t super worried. It was unsettling. I felt for sure I was going to be okay.”

Nevertheless, she “locks herself down” at the condo she shares with her boyfriend.

Her nose starts running, but she dismisses that nuisance to allergies.

Tuesday, July 14

Oele wakes with a blocked nose and a sensation of heaviness in her chest. She goes for a run but can’t manage even half her normal distance. Her chest weighs her down and begins to burn. Later that day, she finds herself short of breath while talking.

Oele then receives another worrisome email. “Multiple individuals” who attended the spin class between July 6 and July 13 have now tested positive. The facility shuts its doors.

“At that point I started to freak out.”

She pulls out her computer and fills out Alberta’s COVID-19 self-assessment survey online. It lists five symptoms, and she types yes to four of them.

Because she doesn’t have a health-care number handy, she waits for nurse to call her back in order to book an appointment for a test. Oele waits and waits.

That night she falls asleep at 9 p.m. She does not wake till 10:30 a.m. in the morning. She thinks, “This isn’t normal.”

Wednesday, July 15

Around 1 p.m., Oele starts to struggle for air. She takes deep gulps to fill her lungs. Her nose runs like a tap, and a violent headache seizes her head like a vice grip. She calls 811, the nurse line. The operator tells her to go to the hospital.

On her way, an overwhelming sensation of vulnerability and fear reduces her to near tears.

She thinks, for the first time, COVID thoughts. “I might die. This might kill me. I can’t believe that my boyfriend might have this because of me.”

She can’t find a parking spot and stops the car. She cries. In the emergency room a masked Oele waits for three hours.

During that time the virus besieges her with new symptoms: chills, body aches and fever.

The Health Link nurse returns her call to book a test, but Oele explains she is already at the hospital.

An emergency doctor checks to make sure that Oele doesn’t have strep throat. Then he feeds a probe six to eight inches in length into her nose to test for the virus.

Based on her symptoms, the doctor tells Oele that she is probably positive and needs to isolate. Test results take 24 hours, he explains. “We call the positives first.”

Oele drives home and crawls into bed.

She feels terrible. “I knew the odds of me having this virus. Whenever I woke up, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I hope that my boyfriend doesn’t have this.’”

Thursday, July 16

Oele rises sick and scared. She feels like she has been in a car accident. Her entire body aches. Beset by fever and sweats, she can barely move. Just washing her face in the bathroom drains her of any energy. Dark circles appear around her eyes. She sweats so profusely that day that she changes her clothes several times.

A sense of deep remorse overwhelms her. “There is nothing to prepare you for the guilt and shame you feel when you think might have potentially infected people you love with something that could have killed them.”

Around two in the afternoon, a Health Link nurse phones. “How are you feeling?” she asks calmly. “We have your tests results, and you are positive. Are you OK?” she inquiries.

“Do you need a few minutes to absorb this or can I tell you the quarantine measures right away.”

Oele says she is okay, and then receives her public health litany. Writes from memory:

“Keep the bedroom door closed.

“Wear masks.

“Have your boyfriend serve food on paper plates and forks.

“Immediately discard the infected material.

“Remove the dog from the room.

“Stay in your room for 10 days or until you experience a 24-hour period with no symptoms.

“Things can come into room (left at the base of the door), but nothing must come out.

“And on it went.”

The nurse finally tells Oele to check the colouring of her nail beds and lips.

If they go blue, a sign of critical oxygen deprivation, she should call 911 and tell them she is a COVID patient that needs help.

The nurse leaves Oele with a number to call if she has any more questions.

That day Oele removes the nail polish from her fingers and toes.

She passes another night in the lonely and energy-sapping embrace of the coronavirus.

Friday, July 17

Another Health Link nurse calls. She goes through a check list of pre-existing health conditions that could result in severe complications and hospitalization including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart issues, smoking and vaping.

Based on Oele’s responses, the nurse determines that she probably wouldn’t become a “critical patient.”

Yet the aches grow worse. Oele gives herself a moral pep talk just to get up and go to the bathroom.

She can’t stand for more than two minutes without needing to sit down due to exhaustion. She takes a brief shower sitting down. Brushing her teeth becomes another Herculean ordeal.

She takes her first meal of the day deposited at the base of the door: soup and a muffin.

Then she discovers more symptoms: she can’t taste or smell the food.

The breathing app on her Apple watch goes off every five minutes to remind her to breathe.

Her headache requires one round of Advils after another.

She thinks, “I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Saturday, July 18

The day greets Oele with heaviness in the chest, shortness of breath and extreme light headedness. A 30-minute phone call leaves her exhausted. She naps twice. In between rests, she checks the colour of finger and toenails. So far, no sign of blueness.

Her boyfriend Keegan learns that his test is negative. She is immensely relieved.

Wednesday, July 22

Oele develops a sore throat and cough, but breathing is getting easier.

A young woman calls and identifies herself as a contract tracer. She wants to trace back all her contacts prior to the emergence of her first symptoms on July 12. She says she is running behind because of the surge of cases in Alberta.

Oele says there were four contacts including her boyfriend and that she has already alerted them all.

The contact tracer asks Oele if she needs the help of a mental health professional after being locked down in one room for a week. Oele thinks that is “amazing.”

A Health Link nurse calls Oele around seven in the evening. She asks what symptoms are still persisting.

A dry, viral cough, says Oele. She adds that she still has no sense of smell and taste. “I get tired doing simple things,” she says.

The nurse explains that those symptoms could last a while, but that she is “clear to leave quarantine” the next day, July 25.

That following day the Alberta government reports 111 new additional cases of COVID-19.

Alberta Health also confirms that Oele’s spin class was part of a super-spreading event. Classes held at just one location infected a total of 42 people.

Researchers now agree that super-spreaders are driving the pandemic.

They estimate that just 10 per cent of the population accounts for 80 per cent of new infections. 

Based on the health status of her contacts, Oele passed on the virus to no one. She remains immensely proud of that fact.

She tells her friends that COVID-19 is not something for young people to dismiss lightly. The virus, she explains, behaves like something altogether more insidious and powerful than a cold or a flu.

“I have never experienced anything like it. It is terrifying and heartbreaking to say the least.”

Oele, who wears a mask when she goes outside, says that she still has trouble taking a long walk.

When she tells her friends about her experience they often reply, “I am sure everyone is going to get it.”

But Oele doesn’t think that has to happen if you are responsible.

“Wear a mask in public and be socially responsible. Stay away from crowds. Don’t go to restaurants and bars. It is not worth it.”

*Information added in response to a commenter's query.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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