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Experiences of Covid-19 and Intensive Care

Living with risk and worries about Covid

On this page you can read and listen to the experiences of people who contracted Covid and were later admitted to Intensive Care. It covers:

  • Early Covid infections for patients who went on to become critically ill
  • Working in essential and frontline jobs, at risk of contracting Covid
  • How people navigated their risk of Covid infection at work and home in the early months of the pandemic
  • How people lived with the risk of infection, particularly if they were vulnerable because of age, ethnicity or pre-existing health conditions

Early Covid infections of UK residents

In March 2020, little was known about the coronavirus that was to have an enormous death toll and came to dominate the news and lives of people worldwide.

Many people fell ill with Covid. A small proportion of all those who were ill, went on to become severely ill and needed to be admitted to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU); many did not survive.

Some of the people we spoke to were among those who contracted the virus in these early days whilst on holidays, at work, or when spending free time with others at home or elsewhere.

 

Carl contracted Covid on a skiing trip in early March 2020.

Carl contracted Covid on a skiing trip in early March 2020.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 50
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I can remember, it sounds really awful now but it’s totally true, I was in a bar in [ski resort] and the place was shutting down tomorrow, it was packed to the brim, absolutely packed to the brim, and the bars were shutting down. The bar was supposed to shut down at 12 and he was going to keep it going till three regardless, and it was just absolutely chocka because it was the last night the resort was going to be open. That’s probably where I got it or the day before.

I was aware of the symptoms, but I was probably naïve to the fact of how serious it was. At the end of the day none of us should have been skiing, but it’s very easy to say that now. Loads of people were, the whole country was still working as normal and things. But it’s that thing of not believing it’s going to get you.

But I knew on the Monday that I’d got it. I usually used to get a cough, if I’d got a cold, I’d get a cough and things, but it didn’t feel like a cold, it felt totally different. And my body was aching. I had a cough, and it was a cough that was affecting my breathing. I can even show you on my phone. It was just like it was just sucking up your breath.

[Plays Video]

That was what it was doing. I’d never had anything like that before. It was just like suddenly you were trying to find air. And when I was coughing, I was trying to bring air in, and you just couldn’t do it. I suppose that’s when my lungs must be filling up with liquid. I don’t know. Is that what it is then? You are able to breathe less and less.

 

Laurence fell ill in March 2020 after having a meeting at work with somebody who was coughing.

Laurence fell ill in March 2020 after having a meeting at work with somebody who was coughing.

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I think it was the meetings I had with the two individuals who went on to become unwell, but they weren’t as unwell as myself. They just literally went home with what they described as a really bad flu and a terrible cough. They lost their voice, but they recovered, whereas I think I must have received a big viral load of it and, yes, I didn’t have any strong underlying health conditions. So, yes, I think it was probably in those meetings with those guys and unfortunately, we weren’t as careful about it then as we are now. Now you wouldn’t dream of going into a meeting room with someone for half an hour, you know, a small meeting room. Like, you know, we’re talking now, you wouldn’t dream of doing it because you might be coughing and pass a mug to someone or, you know, share a pen or something silly. So, I guess it was in those two meetings, one in particular where the guy was pretty…he looked visibly unwell and had a bit of a sweat and he was sort of coughing. I sent him home, but I stayed in that room, and I worked in that room for most of that day, so I think that’s probably where I got it, but it took a good two weeks.

 

Paul lives on a remote farm and caught Covid in a pub in March 2020.

Paul lives on a remote farm and caught Covid in a pub in March 2020.

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At the time when you got ill had you heard about Covid at all, because it was very early days?

It was early days. Very early days. There was no track and trace, there was no face mask, the pubs were still open, shops were still open. I think the full lockdown was 23rd of March, I went in the hospital the 24th, but up until then people were going about their everyday business. I think I may have caught it in a pub about two or three weeks before I went into hospital, because when I left the hospital a few months later I was getting in touch with people and a couple of people in the pub had got it. They weren’t as bad as me, but they did catch it. So, I suspect it was in a pub. But I didn’t think I would catch it. I just thought it was miles away. Because I stay on a farm, isolated in [area of Scotland], there’s nine mile till the nearest shop. Either way, if I turn left, it’s nine mile, if I turn right it’s nine mile. And we don’t get many visitors at all. The farmer and the gamekeeper, that’s about it.

At the time, the UK government provided public health information to the general public about handwashing and symptoms, but was otherwise slow to introduce measures to curb the spread of the virus in comparison to other countries with similar infection rates. One woman we spoke to about her partner’s later infection remembered feeling powerless at the time.

 

Kate, who works as a midwife in the NHS, felt powerless when the UK government did not lock down.

Kate, who works as a midwife in the NHS, felt powerless when the UK government did not lock down.

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So, I remember hearing that there was a virus in China, and I remember seeing, they all had their NBC suits on didn’t they and they were washing the streets and stuff like that?  And then I remember there being a case identified in a GP’s surgery on the south coast, and thinking, well, that’s a bit strange.  But, I didn’t really think anything of it, because I remember there being, so I was working clinically when Ebola happened, and I remember that they were preparing for Ebola to come to the UK, which was bizarre, and we had these big, outside A&E, like containers, so we’d had these containers put in with PPE and stuff like that, in case Ebola came over, which was just, you kind of think to yourself, it’s never going to happen.  And I think I was about the same with this.  Yeah, that was it really, I think that’s when I first heard about it, and I didn’t really take any notice of it, because it was being played down actually, in the media. Yeah, and it was a case of, oh, we don’t need to worry about it here, yeah. But I don’t really remember anything significant then, until lockdown. In fact, I do remember, now somebody locked down first, I can’t remember, it was a country, it was Italy that locked down before us, wasn’t it? And I remember them locking down, and a friend of mine who I was working with, her kids had gone to Italy on a school trip and had just got back as Italy had locked down. And I remember that conversation with her about, well what are they doing with the kids, are they quarantining them, or whatever? And then I remember getting really cross with Boris Johnson, [me] saying, we need to lock down, actually, we need to lock down, because the students that I was teaching are healthcare students, so they’re exposed to everything et cetera, et cetera, and I remember about a week before, going, why are we not locking down? Why are we not doing this? So yeah, I remember that.

So that, I found really difficult. And you feel really kind of disempowered or, you know, that’s the wrong thing, impotent actually, because you have no control over this. And I just, the NHS means a lot to me, you know? I was trained by the NHS, I’ve worked within the NHS, and I could just see it, I knew what was going to happen, because there’d been years and years of under-funding and cuts, and, you know, I’d worked in the services where we were so under-resourced, but the expectations were that high, quite rightly, that it would only take something like this to come and tip it over.

On the 23rd of March 2020 the UK government made previous advice on ‘social distancing’ mandatory and introduced a nationwide lockdown.

Working in essential and frontline jobs and the risk of Covid

Those working jobs that came to be classed as ‘essential’ and on the frontline, including work in the education, transport and healthcare sectors, were mostly unable to keep physical distance from others. They were therefore at increased risk of infection. In the beginning, this risk was not entirely clear to everyone, or – knowing little about the virus and the effect an infection can have – they were not worried.

 

Elizabeth and her husband were both working in essential jobs. She felt that they had both not understood the severity of Covid yet because they were not particularly worried.

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Elizabeth and her husband were both working in essential jobs. She felt that they had both not understood the severity of Covid yet because they were not particularly worried.

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Do you remember when you first heard about Covid and were you worried about yourself or your husband?

He was a utility worker, so we were both key workers. Ironically, he was more worried about me. I mean, I was, as I say, a nurse in the community environment. I was only doing one or two days. I wouldn’t say that I was particularly at that time, because I had done infectious diseases in the past ironically, and I don’t think either of us probably totally understood. Because it was very early. Because he became poorly in the April so it was very much, it would have been completely different if it had been in the next wave, then I would have had more of an understanding. I wouldn’t say that I was frightened of it particularly. I just didn’t understand it.

Yes, it was very early on, wasn’t it?

Yes. And I do sometimes think back, gosh if it had been the second wave would I have done… I would have a thermometer. I didn’t even have a thermometer. That was probably a typical nurse thing. But I could tell he had a temperature. But yeah, I think that was it, yeah. But no, I wouldn’t say we were.

And even when he picked it up, well as I say obviously, we didn’t know for definite because they weren’t testing and where I worked, they weren’t really testing. And with being a bank nurse I wasn’t a member of staff who was there constantly, so we didn’t really have access. Obviously, I said, oh it’ll be fine, don’t worry, when he had this little cough thing. And I think it’s because he didn’t deteriorate, because it was a classic, it was ten days before he really deteriorated, really ill. He didn’t have much of an appetite which was very unlike him, it was incredibly unlike him, but other than that no.

The use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other protective barriers can minimise the risk of contracting the virus. It is therefore essential for those working in essential jobs. However, in the early months of the pandemic, in the UK and elsewhere, PPE was limited. PPE shortages were a problem across all health care sectors, but particularly so for high risk environments other than the hospital, such as care homes. And so, many people working in these environments were exposed to the virus, and became ill.

 

Ann contracted Covid when working in a care home in April 2020.

Ann contracted Covid when working in a care home in April 2020.

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It was the beginning of April I was working in a residential home for people with learning disabilities and dementia. I was the senior night care worker. And part of our duties was to do personal care, and I used to do the personal care of this particular lady each morning I was on duty. And I think at that time when Covid was just starting to become more we heard about Covid we had to then have PPE. Unfortunately, we didn’t have all the PPE and the correct PPE at the time, and once people were starting to be asked to go and get checked to see if they had Covid I went with my husband, and he tested negative. It was at a stadium where the healthcare workers were asked to go to.

And mine came back as positive, so I had to get in touch with work and tell them that I’d got Covid, so I wasn’t able to go in. What I actually found out from that was the lady that I did personal care with each morning, she had caught Covid, and we think at the time is that there was a lot of different staff coming in because we had a staff shortage at the time and so other people were coming in. So, we think that the resident had caught Covid from another member of staff outside of our building where I worked. And I unfortunately caught it from the resident. Thankfully she turned out to be okay.

I on the other hand wasn’t so lucky. When I was diagnosed with Covid obviously I had to phone in sick, and it was a few days later that I started to feel unwell. When my breathing started to become a bit difficult, I remember phoning the doctor and saying I’m struggling to breathe and started to get the symptoms like bad headache… And the breathing was the worst part, which worried me more. And she said that she felt I might have the symptoms of Covid started. So, she advised me to ring 111, which I did, told them how I was feeling; they suggested that an ambulance would come out, which it did. I could say they were probably here within ten minutes; they were very quick.

In every sector, businesses had to make decisions about how to best protect their employees. Many of the people we interviewed continued to go to work despite worrying about their health, as they could not simply stop working. Although they did not stop worrying about the possibility that they may get infected or bring the infection home to members of their household, especially if they were deemed vulnerable.

Victor’s black cab was fitted with a Perspex guard. Although Victor was worried about contracting Covid, he continued to go to work: “The benefit of being a black cab driver, regarding Covid, is we have a partition, so like a Perspex guard. So, although you’re in the same vehicle, you’re not in the same space. But there’s just, like, a little opening and I always felt I’d have to be very, very unlucky if I contracted it. But we have a procedure where someone gets in, the passenger compartment is disinfected and so there’s only so much you can do. But I couldn’t not work through the fear of potentially getting Covid. I was aware but it didn’t...I wasn’t worried enough to stop me going to work.”

Many we spoke to who lived with others and considered themselves to be at risk of contracting and passing on Covid tried to socially distance within their house as best as they could. Donna, who works as a senior community healthcare assistant, and her husband slept in separate rooms because of the infection risk. She said: “I was scared that I was dealing with lots of clients, and I would bring home Covid, even with the PPE, so we had separate bedrooms.”

Of course, keeping a distance from one another indoors was harder for those whose homes were less spacious, or for those who had caring responsibilities that required them to be physically close to those needing care and support.

Living with the risk of contracting Covid

People varied in how worried they were about the risk Covid posed to their health and the health of those around them. While some people we spoke to grew increasingly anxious about their health, and the health of their loved ones, others were not particularly worried about falling ill. Some who went on to become critically ill initially did not believe that they could catch Covid or that it could be harmful to them.

 

Before he fell ill with Covid, Neil dismissed the chance that he could fall ill with the virus.

Before he fell ill with Covid, Neil dismissed the chance that he could fall ill with the virus.

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So, do you remember when you first heard about Covid and what your thoughts were then, because you were ill quite early on in the pandemic, no?

Yeah, I… when we first all heard about it, I said…I was quite blasé and non-accepting of how bad it was going to be. I said, it’s just like the cold flu, people die of the flu every year, it’s just the same as that. It’s not going to be anything different; it’s not going to be…it won’t kill as many people as die of flu. So, I was very dismissive of it. Boy was I wrong, boy was I wrong. I know now how bad it is, obviously, and I know that it is…it’s such a bad virus that it can just touch your body and basically wants to kill you. So yeah, I was pretty wrong with that one.

So, when you say you were quite blasé and dismissive, does that mean…did you not have any particular worries about you or anyone around you, is that right?

Yeah, I didn’t think I was going to catch it, I didn’t think anybody I knew would catch it. I just thought, yeah if you get a cold, you get a cold. Yeah, so that’s exactly how I thought about it.

And then what did you know about Covid when you developed that cough that you mentioned?

Well, I just knew that…they said at the time the symptoms were if you’ve got a really bad cough… I also lost sense of smell and taste, so I thought I pretty much may’ve had it. And that’s why I did say to work, I think I need to self-isolate, but I did say, I feel like I’ve been hit by a train, but I’ll be alright, I’ll let you know how I am in a couple of weeks after I’ve isolated. And that didn’t materialise obviously because it just deteriorated, and I ended up in hospital. So yeah, it was …golly, it was worse than the flu.

Different ideas about the risks Covid posed in families and friendship groups could result in tensions or emotional arguments. Sometimes this caused damage to longstanding relationships.

Early on in the pandemic, it became increasingly clear that people of ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to contract, develop and die from severe Covid* (Jenny Douglas explains why here).

 

Dr Jenny Douglas explains why deaths appeared to be greater among people from minority ethnic and religious groups.

Dr Jenny Douglas explains why deaths appeared to be greater among people from minority ethnic and religious groups.

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There is evidence from public reports that a higher proportion of people from ethnic minority communities have died.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case.

  • Long standing social inequalities mean that people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be in jobs which expose them the virus, such as working in health and social care or transport.
  • Racism is still a big problem in the UK, and this has an impact on health. People from ethnic minority communities have worse overall health than the white majority, which means that more people were living with other illnesses which contributed to them having a worse experience of covid.

Another issue is that there is a historic mistrust of healthcare systems. Many years of structural racism have contributed to worse healthcare experiences for people from ethnic minorities. Sadly, there have been a number of times in recent memory when people from ethnic minorities have been actively mistreated by health care institutions, particularly around the development of new treatments. This meant that some people were scared to seek help from hospitals at points during the pandemic.

These factors taken together start to explain why more people from ethnic minorities were worse affected by covid.

The differences in outcomes are explained through complex social factors, such as the higher presence of people from ethnic minority groups in public-facing jobs, and higher rates of social deprivation.

Michael, who is Black British, contracted Covid when he went back to work after a period of shielding. Reflecting back, he said: “There were news items coming out, … and statistics about people, black and Asian minority ethnic backgrounds were more at risk…. I was fully aware that if I caught it I would…the results could be fatal compared to if some other people caught it. So yes, I was aware of that, but I don’t think I was unduly worried about it.”

 

Michael contracted Covid when he went back to work after a period of homeworking.

Michael contracted Covid when he went back to work after a period of homeworking.

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So, in the very beginning do you remember when you first heard about Covid? And were you particularly worried about yourself?

I remember a news item, would have been probably the middle of December, about a virus which had taken hold in Wuhan in China. And to be honest with you I didn’t think that much about it until I heard when the first cases came to the UK and other parts of the world.

So, I was carefully monitoring the amount of cases that we were having over here, and I think in the early days I did my best to, you know, wash your hands and take all the hygienic precautions you can. And I would find every day I would have to get out, travel on public transport to go to work, but that wasn’t a problem for me. And so, in, I think it would have been April, we were told that if you’re in a vulnerable group we could continue working from home. So, I managed, as I said, to do that between March and July of 2020. Before I went back to work, they did a risk assessment for me, and I think the changes they made at work was that no more than two people could be in the office and we had to be at least two metres apart, and we wore even PPE. And I think they did what they could for us to be able to continue working on site.

Unfortunately, which I only learned later, my colleague who I was sharing the office with contracted Covid. So, he was off work, and he had the test, and the test came back positive. And at the time I was feeling some of the ailments, but at the time – I keep saying at the time – but I didn’t, for a moment think that I would have had it. Then he told me that he had lost his sense of taste and smell, and it was almost like I was about four or five days behind him, so every new ailment he had I had the same ailment. So, I continued to work before I knew that I had Covid, and even that day I went to work for some reason I was feeling very fatigued, and even before I got to the train station I was really out of breath, but I still managed to get into work. But when my manager saw me, he said that I really should go home because I’m not well. So, I went home and ordered a home testing kit, and that came within a few days. And I got a call I think within about two days of sending in the test they said that I was positive.

In addition, it became clear that old age and underlying health conditions, such as asthma, COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or diabetes, made people more susceptible to developing severe Covid. This caused some people who have a diagnosis of one or more of such conditions to take precautions to protect their own health, or the health of those around them. People we talked to described some of the drastic measures they took to avoid all possible contact with others, both in the early months of the pandemic as well as later on.

 

Wendy moved into a caravan in her back garden for three months in the late spring of 2020 to minimise the risk of infection from her partner.

Wendy moved into a caravan in her back garden for three months in the late spring of 2020 to minimise the risk of infection from her partner.

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So, my daughter’s got a couple of friends who are nurses and doctors and all sorts, well, lots…she’s got a lot of medic friends. And one of them in particular she sort of spoke to and said, we’re thinking about putting Mum out in the caravan while this is going on because dad’s still working, I’m still working. And [Son-in-law] was working from home already because his company just said, right, don’t come in, work from home, you know, nobody’s to come in. So, this friend texted her back and said, yeah, great idea, get her out there as soon as you can because this thing is lethal, you know, our hospitals are filling up.

So, we sort of made the…so when we locked down on the 23rd, that weekend we were clearing out the caravan and getting it all ready, and so I moved out there. I did go out every day and I spoke to my nurse, I said, look, if I just have to stay in here, I will go insane. I walk my dog every day. She said, that’s fine, she said, as long as you socially distance with your husband or your daughter or whoever you go with, she said, that’s fine. And, she said, you need to do that for exercise anyway for your lungs. So, I said, right, great. So, I would walk every single day.

And they would cook my meal for me, my evening meal. I’d sort myself out for breakfast and lunch and the one good thing about being in the caravan was I had hot toast every morning because there was no interruptions and nobody said, ooh have you got the kettle on, make me a cup of tea. So, yeah, so it was…when I look back on it, it was good in the way that I found that I was okay. The days I had a complete and utter meltdown was when any of the technology didn’t work and then I would just go, oh my goodness, oh my goodness, I can’t be out here all evening without… It’s too quiet, you know, even though we’ve got an A27 going past us. So [Husband], my husband would come out and he’d fix things and, you know, but they’d all find a way of getting it sorted out for me. So that was good.

 

Chris was diagnosed with Covid during Christmas 2020 and worried about his asthma.

Chris was diagnosed with Covid during Christmas 2020 and worried about his asthma.

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Was slightly concerned, the fact that I’ve got asthma, but I was obviously at the time, A, worried because my granddad was in hospital, and the fact that he had it and he wasn’t doing good; and then the fact I was struggling. And it’s weird because ever since it happened, since coronavirus started at work, we’ve been…because I literally only had been to work and home, we were super careful, as in wearing masks, only two people allowed in our shop. And we tried to do everything we could to stay safe, by masking, doing that; and somehow one of us got it in the family. So that was the worrying thing. And, then once I obviously had it and I couldn’t control it with my asthma it got very scary. When the anxiety you get when you can’t take in a proper breath, which I’ve had a lot over the years with chest infections and asthma attacks. And it’s difficult to explain to someone, when you go to take a breath and you can’t breathe in it’s one of the scariest things in the world not being able to breathe. Yeah. So yeah, having asthma, going into hospital knowing that I’ve got a breathing problem that wasn’t down to asthma was a, yeah, it really, really was worrying that I knew it wasn’t that.

Living with pre-existing or underlying health conditions increases the risk of becoming critically ill with Covid. However, people without any underlying health conditions can also contract and become severely ill.

 

Alisha found it hard to grasp why Covid had affected her father, who had had no underlying health conditions, yet died from Covid in intensive care.

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Alisha found it hard to grasp why Covid had affected her father, who had had no underlying health conditions, yet died from Covid in intensive care.

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How can a man who has no underlying health conditions, has no problems, is completely healthy, be affected by Covid, to even go into the hospital and now to be in the ICU. I was just telling my mum this is ridiculous, this is just not real, it’s just not possible. You look at the statistics and you think that yeah, if you’ve got heart problems, if you’ve got diabetes, if you’ve got things like that, you’re at higher risk, you’re more likely to pass away. You’re more likely to have to go to the hospital and need such intervention because you’ve got some problems in your body anyway. So, it was like why is my dad having to be in the ICU when he’s so healthy, which is a question that me and mum still ask ourselves, like why?

Because you don’t hear it, you don’t hear the healthy people having to go to such extents, and now he’s not even alive anymore, which I still don’t understand, and I don’t think anyone will get answers to these kinds of questions because we just don’t know about how Covid affects the body. Hopefully one day we’ll know more, but it’s like how will that help me and my mum? Because he’s not alive anymore, you can’t do an autopsy on his body anymore to see why things happened to him, so even if we do get answers in the future, we’ll still always be wondering what happened to my dad and how he died. It’s just like there’s no one time that we will get an answer I think, and it’s just learning. I do believe in research and all of that, and that’s why I’m here really. I do believe it’s always going to help. But I just wish that he didn’t have to go through that.

You can read about people’s experiences of having symptoms at home on our pages on ‘Managing with symptoms at home’, ‘When more than one person is ill’ and ‘When things get worse’.

*Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – Underlying Medical Conditions Associated with Higher Risk for Severe COVID-19: Information for Healthcare Providers

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