Can the vaccination after-effects be any worse than the fallout of the virus itself?

The majority still fully recover, but growing numbers don’t. Months after falling ill, they wonder whether they’ll ever feel normal again

This article is personal because that’s how big the coronavirus has become: it’s personal to all of us. By now, we don’t need the media to tell us how serious this is.

Let me explain. I was talking to a friend who lives in a country that I won’t mention the name of … because this is hearsay and a little damning.

It’s rumoured, he told me, that the country is cooking its infection figures to maintain its position in the top 100 worst affected countries in the world. Inclusion is lucrative, apparently. 

It’s a country with a small, fear-mongered population, currently in the height of summer, which is clocking up hundreds of cases per day despite heavy precautions.

“So how many people do you know who’ve had it?” I asked. The answer said it all. “None,” he replied.

How do you feel today?
I heard the same question on a train in southern England last summer: a father talking to his son about how the whole thing was made up.

But this is no make-believe: without even making enquiries, we knew that at least five Copenhagen Post employees, past and present, had been infected.

We contacted them to see if they would share their personal stories: of how they contracted the virus.

But more importantly we wanted to raise awareness of how for many, getting the virus is only the beginning. In two of the five cases, their discomfort continues today.

Viruses like COVID-19, by their nature, may be impersonal, but when they strike like this, we all feel them on a deeply personal level.

Paul McNamara

Age: 30s
Nationality: Irish
Contracted corona: December 2020
CPH POST: former intern

I first fell ill the day after the second lockdown started – December 9. I had to do a stock-take in the bar and soon felt more tired than normal from lifting crates, kegs and boxes. 

By the time I was finished that day I had what I would call extreme aches and pains all over my body. I hadn’t at the time heard of anyone having this as a symptom of COVID -19 so I thought it was only a bad cold coming on – after all I had no respiratory symptoms, no fever, no cough, no shortness of breath, no runny nose, no sore throat nor breathing difficulties of any sort.

Penny starts to drop
However, that night as I lay exhausted on the couch feeling sorry for myself, a good friend of mine who is a nurse and works with coronavirus patients told me she had tested positive for the virus and that I should be tested.

It’s hard to say whether I contracted it from her because working in a bar I meet hundreds of people. Also at this point, the gyms were still open and how well the equipment was cleaned varied from person to person.

The next day my housemate and his girlfriend also tested positive along with some other close friends. 

Relatively routine
The interesting thing to me was how different everyone’s symptoms were. At that point, eight people I knew had tested positive, but I was the only one to have aches and pains.

Some had lost their smell and taste, others had terrible headaches and exhaustion, and one or two a runny nose and the sense they weren’t really ill at all.

I quarantined for 11 days, but pretty much felt back to normal after seven days. Christmas and New Year’s Eve came and went without a blip of the virus and I didn’t think about it again until mid-January.

Something’s wrong
I was on a bike ride and I began to struggle. My heart was pounding in my chest so much I thought I could hear it. Additionally, I couldn’t find the strength to maintain a good speed. It was only a casual bike ride and nothing strenuous, so I was surprised when I looked at my watch and saw my heart rate was up to 155 bpm.

This happened two or three times in January, but while it was extremely uncomfortable, I didn’t give it much thought because it stopped just as suddenly as it started. 

Then it started to occur when I was relaxing – watching television or lying down at night to sleep. But the penny didn’t drop that it could be related to COVID until my housemate texted me to say he had to get off his bike cycling to the shop because his heart was beating so hard.

It turns out this was going to become a semi-regular thing for both of us, and not just while exercising.

Exhaustion too
I would also randomly get sudden waves of exhaustion: an overwhelming feeling of tiredness and need to lie down. It could be any time of day and didn’t seem to matter what I was in the middle of. This was to me just as strange as the palpitations because I’ve always been active or worked long hours, and I’m usually full of energy.

I’m not alone. I’ve now met quite a few people who’ve had COVID, and half report still having problems three to four week after ‘recovering’. These have ranged from heart palpitations like me, to extreme exhaustion and a severe loss of fitness. One even struggles to find the right words when speaking sometimes.

Though I still get the palpitations two or three times a week – and I never had them before contracting COVID – it’s not something I worry about regularly anymore, as they are less severe.

Ray Weaver

Age: 60s
Nationality: American
Contracted corona: March 2020
CPH POST capacity: former journalist

I got in early. I was one of the first people in my circle to get COVID-19. In fact, I’m writing this on 16 March 2021, one year to the day since I contracted the virus.  

And what a year it has been. After just barely surviving the virus itself, losing 11 kilos in less than two weeks and enduring fevers of unknown temperatures, I got ‘better’. Better being an extremely relative term. 

It’s made me old
I’m a long-hauler: one of the people who have endured after-effects from the virus that are still being researched. The difference in my physical appearance is amazing. And, frankly, depressing. Last year, I was a hale and hearty 64-year-old. I went to the gym at least four times a week and ran regularly. 

Post-COVID, I was too weak to do much more than walk around my garden. These days, I’m an old man. I am always short of breath now. I have started to add some moderate exercise back into my daily routine, but 20-25 minutes is all I can manage. 

Daily headaches
Something, perhaps the fevers, really played havoc with my hearing. I was fitted for hearing aids in November. I had taken a hearing test the year before and it showed nothing more than the normal loss of a man my age. Now, it is much, much worse.

I’m tired, cannot focus and find it difficult to get through a day without an afternoon nap. I have what we long-haulers call the ‘Corona headache’ most days. It starts in the back of my neck and runs around to my forehead, like someone with very large hands is squeezing my head as tightly as they can.

Stomach ulcers
The worst for me are the gastro-intestinal issues. I have stomach ulcers, another ailment I had not had previously. There is a good chance, actually, that I caused them myself because while I was in my fever-induced states of delirium, I lost track of how many Ibuprofen tablets I was gulping down, completely trashing my stomach lining and intestines. 

I have good days and bad days, but there is no question my health is not what it was 365 days ago. I’m a victim of my own hubris, in fact. I was so healthy that I was sure there was no way a virus was going to lay me low.

I was wrong.

Peter Stanners

Age: 30s
Nationality: British
Contracted corona: December 2020
CPH POST: former senior journalist

Peter! Peter!!” 

I awoke with a start from a deep slumber to find my girlfriend screaming my name and slapping my face. Hard.

Complete disorientation
“Where am I?!” I was disorientated and my heart raced. I slowly registered that I was on my bedroom floor and that I had fainted. I could remember writing a text in the kitchen and suddenly feeling the blood drain from my body. I staggered toward my bed but didn’t make it. My girlfriend watched me keel over on the floor. For the 20 seconds I lay there limp, with blue lips and a white face, she thought I was dead.

I wasn’t, of course. I just had COVID-19. Or at least that’s what we thought. My symptoms started a week before, on a Saturday night in early December. The headache set in as the evening wore on. A mild pressure at the front of my skull morphed into a throbbing thud, which kept me awake most of the night. In the early morning I awoke in a pool of sweat, shivering, feverish. My joints and muscles ached like I’d run a marathon.

I got a test on Monday but by Wednesday I still hadn’t got an answer. I never did – they lost it.

Cardboard for lunch
On Thursday, my girlfriend and I woke up and made coffee. And as she sipped it, she inhaled deeply through her nose. And again. She couldn’t smell it. I buried my nose in the packet of coffee. Nothing. Peeled open a clementine. Nothing. Just air. We bought pizza for lunch. It was like eating cardboard.

The nausea had been creeping up on both of us during the week and by Friday we were eating very little. Without a sense of smell, food lost its appeal. All we drank was water to wash down headache pills. Our heads felt filled with lead.

When I fainted the next day we called 112 and soon an ambulance was outside. I answered the door to a man in a bright yellow hazmat suit who took me away to Bispebjerg Hospital. They did a test and I was positive for SARS-COV-2. Blood tests showed I hadn’t been eating properly, but the scan of my lungs came back clear. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Struggling to breathe
It was premature. Several days later I started to cough. My lungs had space for half the air. I had to take short shallow breaths. It was terrifying – still nauseous and aching almost two weeks after the first onset of symptoms. We’d done all the puzzles, watched all four seasons of ‘The Crown’. It was scary and boring and it felt like it would last forever.

But it didn’t. Within three weeks the symptoms had lifted. Our sense of smell had returned. I went for short slow runs and my lungs slowly recovered. Within five weeks I was back to normal. It’s unlike any other illness I’ve had. Slowly developing, from a fever and aches, to nausea and a headache, and finally my lungs. I understand how it can grind some people down, how it can leave them with long-term damage. I read how it’s happened to people like me – fit, healthy and in their 30s.

Shit: smells like victory
I’m left with a real appreciation of my sense of smell. Just two weeks without it made me realise how much I depended on it. I try to savour every last whiff – from the aroma of a lemon or the tangy whiff of asphalt on a warm day. 

I took all smells for granted. When they returned, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Sitting down, scrolling on my phone, flaring my nostrils and, suddenly, identifying the distinct stench of faeces. For that one brief moment, it was the sweetest perfume.

Leslea Pedersen

Age: 50s
Nationality: British
Contracted corona: December 2020
CPH POST: columnist

A mild cough and sniffles – a typical cold, I thought. By chance I had already booked a COVID test – but I never expected my test would be positive. 

With most viruses like a cold or flu, you pretty much know the drill – but with COVID, you are stepping into the unknown. For a split-second I was nervous but when your son tests positive too, you must get on with it and sort out the living conditions to keep your husband – who tested negative – safe.

Overall fortunate
In quarantine and in the lounge for 19 days with no company other than Netflix was fine, and apart from a few days of intense nausea and a persistent cough, the worst experience for me was the loss of taste and smell. The effects lasted until Christmas Day, when thankfully some taste returned so I could enjoy the turkey!

Not being able to leave my home and do my usual exercise routine means I am still working on my fitness. I get breathless easily, and my taste is not back yet fully, with certain foods tasting ‘odd’, but I’m grateful that my symptoms overall are mild, which was not the case for some of my friends and family.

Valmira Gjoni

Age: 30s
Nationality: Greek
Contracted corona: January 2021
CPH POST: former intern

I am one of the lucky ones – I didn’t have a severe brush with COVID. However, the perception of physiological pain differs from person to person, so I shouldn’t underestimate it. 

Given all the media downpour about the severity of this virus, when I got the test results I must say that I felt a little bit scared. But it was not as much about my health, but about the people I had met during those days. Also, I didn’t know how my body would react. 

Fear of the unknown
The first symptom I felt was my chest burning and a deep cough that lasted for two days. I had no high fever but I did develop anosmia, a loss of smell and taste, which stayed with me for weeks even after I had recovered. Overall, the most painful and maybe alarming part of my experience was the body aches and the pressure on my chest. I could feel my muscles as stiff as a stone. 

However, the psychological impact was bigger than the physical one. Being alone for weeks with an unclear mind, scared that I was the cause of someone’s else unwellness, left me extremely affected.