Devon woman ‘had Covid last December’

A woman from Devon says an antibody test proves she caught the coronavirus in the UK in December of last year – more than a month before the first cases were confirmed in the country.

Paul Greaves www.devonlive.com 

Sue Reader, 59, from Ogwell, believes she caught the virus during a trip to arrange travel documents from the Chinese Visa Application Centre in London on December 16.

She did not develop symptoms until December 30 and immediately self-isolated. She displayed all the usual symptoms we now associate with Covid-19, including acute shortness of breath, fatigue and loss of smell.

The NHS worker had an antibody test in June which proved she had contracted the virus.

If correct, Sue’s experience adds to growing evidence that the virus was active in the UK much earlier than first thought. The virus is understood to have started in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The UK did not confirm its first Covid positive case until January 31, 2020.

Sue said: “It just seems to me the government are in complete denial by saying they don’t believe it was in this country before the end of January.

“I’m not suggesting I was the first person in the country to catch it but I may well have been the first in Devon, simply because of the circumstances in which I contracted it and the fact I was at home in bed completely floored by it.”

Sue was staying at her parents home in Henley-on-Thames when she visited the Chinese Visa Application Centre in the City of London on December 16. She was planning a holiday to the Great Wall of China and needed the appropriate travel documentation.

She said: “Inside the building it was full of people coughing and spluttering. I always notice this type of behaviour because I am the type of person who never gets sick. I lead a very healthy lifestyle but the coughing was very apparent.”

While at the visa centre Sue was busy photocopying documents, touching cash machines, having face-to-face discussion with staff, using the photo booth. She believes this was the crucial period when she caught the virus.

“That was the 16th and basically it wasn’t until the 30th when I was suddenly completely and absolutely overwhelmed,” she says.

“I had a high temperature, I was aching, I couldn’t breathe and I was hallucinating. I remember saying to my family ‘do not let anybody come into my room. Whatever I’ve got nobody wants it’.

“My father is 88 and has heart failure and I was very conscious that I could not stay because whatever I had was serious. I don’t think he would be here now if I had stayed. I knew it was a virus and not just a cold or something like that.”

Despite her failing health Sue managed to drive back to Ogwell near Newton Abbot on January 1. She spent the next month in complete isolation, mostly sleeping, not leaving the house.

By this time there had been a number of confirmed coronavirus cases in China. The first known death from the illness was in China on January 11. In the UK, the virus was almost unknown outside of medical circles.

The first cases in the country were not confirmed until January 31 in York, though anecdotal evidence suggests it was here before that date. An 84-year-old man from Kent who died on January 30 is certified as the earliest Covid-related death in the UK. Peter Attwood showed symptoms on December 15, 2019.

Sue says: “It wasn’t like anything I had experienced before. I didn’t know anything about coronavirus at the time, nobody did. I remember the first time I heard about it and it was like a light bulb moment.

“I was extremely ill. I couldn’t even walk up the stairs. All I wanted to do was sleep. I was on my own and very ill for about a month.”

Antibody tests were offered to NHS staff in June this year and Sue, who was convinced she’d had the virus, decided to take one. It came back positive for Covid antibodies, meaning her body’s immune system had built up a level of protection and she had indeed had the virus.

She wanted to donate plasma to help those convalesing with the virus but was told her veins were were too narrow for it to be safe.

What worries her now is the long term toll the virus has taken on her body. Sue displays ongoing health issues commonly connected to ‘Long Covid’.

“I’m a keen gardener and my allotment is at the bottom of a hill. By the time I walk back I’m completely out of breath for five minutes. For me my biggest anxiety is that nobody knows the long term effect it has on people’s health.

“What I don’t understand is why they are not looking at a person’s lung capacity. I don’t know what long term damage has been done to my lungs and nobody seems to be considering it.”

She also thinks the incubation period of the disease is longer than commonly thought.

“I hadn’t been unwell in the 14 days between my visit to the visa centre and the 30th and had carried on as normal over Christmas. But nobody else in the household got ill, not my father or grandmother.

“It is my belief, because of my personal experience, that you start being contagious when the coughing begins.”

Current health advice is that people appear to be most infectious just before they develop symptoms (namely two days before they develop symptoms) and early in their illness.

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