68 days of isolation and 22 swab tests: A Singaporean’s long COVID-19 journey after possible infection at UK party

68 days of isolation and 22 swab tests: A Singaporean’s long COVID-19 journey after possible infection at UK party

daviest ong the day he got discharged after covid-19 68 days
Daviest Ong was discharged from Gleneagles Hospital after 68 days of isolation. (Photo: Daviest Ong)

*An Editor's Note has been added at the bottom of this story*

SINGAPORE: When Daviest Ong turned up unannounced at the door of his family's flat in Whampoa last week, his reunion with his parents and elder sister was a teary affair peppered with hugs. 

The 24-year-old was finally home after 68 days in isolation with COVID-19. 

On May 29, he tested negative for the illness, after a total of 22 uncomfortable swab tests. With that test result, he was able to take the first steps out of his home for more than two months - a single-bed ward in Gleneagles Hospital.

“When I went down to the lobby, and smelt the fresh air, it felt very good, because I couldn’t even pop my head out when I was in the ward,” he told CNA in a phone interview. 

“When I found out I was going to be discharged, that was the happiest day of my life.”

Being discharged has allowed him to enjoy the small pleasures he had missed during his isolation, such as having a meal with his family or being able to step outside whenever he wants to.

READ: Can COVID-19 patients keep testing positive but no longer be infectious? Here's what you need to know

“It’s the simple stuff that count, the things that I was deprived of,” he said.

By the time he was discharged, Daviest had not seen his family for eight months. Before he fell ill and had to be warded, he had been studying at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

HANGING ONTO HOPES OF A NEGATIVE TEST

Daviest's life in hospital centred around the four days he had to wait after each swab test, hoping each time for a result that would allow him to go home. 

“It was very demoralising to keep taking the test. Every time, you go through the pain hoping for a negative result,” he said.

“It gets very tiring.”

daviest ong in hospital covid-19 68 days
Daviest Ong was warded in hospital for more than two months after being diagnosed with COVID-19. (Photo: Daviest Ong)

In the first two weeks of the illness, Daviest suffered from the common symptoms that come with COVID-19 - nausea, shortness of breath, dry cough and the inability to taste or smell.

While the sickness was unpleasant, at least it felt like he was in hospital for a reason. But as time wore on and his symptoms improved, the days in isolation became more of a challenge. 

READ: COVID-19 patients who still test positive but clinically well by day 21 of illness can be discharged

“It got very claustrophobic. I felt trapped and alone, and I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.

CREATING A LIFE AS NORMAL AS POSSIBLE

One way of dealing with the emotional strain was through exercise.

“I tried to recreate life outside (on the) inside. I had to do it for my sanity,” he said. Studying was also a welcome distraction, as he continued to have examinations.

His loneliness was only staved off each time a nurse came in, but that did little to satiate his need for social interaction.

Daviest kept in touch with friends who were going through a similar experience, and took some solace that there were others who could share in and empathise with his misery.

He was also thankful because, as he saw it, he was not in the worst possible situation. Other patients he knew were struggling much more than he was.

His stay may have been made worse by the realisation he might have only himself to blame for his predicament.

A NIGHT OF ABANDON

While there is no way for him to confirm how he got the illness, his best guess is a rare night out of partying in the United Kingdom. That was when he threw caution to the wind.

"In terms of the party, it was under a school event, actually. So like because as I mentioned, school was still going as per normal, so it was like a celebration kind of party for us, because like, it was right after us getting champions in my table tennis competition. So at that point of time it was a celebration under, it’s like, it’s like a school social event, where every Wednesday, we’ll have (unclear on recording). 

"So like at that point of time, because school was going as per normal , I just, I felt like okay, I kind of let my guard down (unclear word) going to the party. Because it was actually early March, and I can remember Newcastle had four to five cases, either four or five. At that point of time, I let my guard down, so I went to the party. And then, I mean I still don’t have a clear indication of how I got the virus, but I’m just suspecting that it might be because I was carrying drinks, carrying cups, as well as, in the club you know like (unclear word) I was like perspiring, and I was wiping off my sweat, and I was touching my face even though I was touching like the surfaces of the tables, the chairs and everything like that. I didn’t wash my hands, basically too, before I touched my face, to be exact. 

"So, and at that point of time, I didn’t know that my friends were contracted with the virus because they were, at that point of time, they were still asymptomatic. They were not sick, they showed no signs of sickness. But at that point of time, which is why we were just very relaxed and we didn’t really think about it. So after that when I returned to Singapore, that’s when my friends told me they were sick, and they had symptoms of the coronavirus. So that was when I realised I might have gotten it from them. And also, I think, if I remember correctly, that was the last time I went out in a mass gathering setting, so I kind of suspect that through, it’s from that night that I got the virus from, which is the two friends that also sort of got the virus. 

"And they are suspecting that they got it from London, because they went to London a week before. And London was the epicentre of the UK virus outbreak. So, at that point of time, I think like they were telling me about how it was crowded there, so like they went for exhibition, museum exhibition, and then in the trains as well, it was all, like they were very exposed to a lot of people, because it was very crowded as well. So like, they, I think they have no idea how they even got the whole virus as well. Like, like they might have touched certain surfaces, and touched themselves on the face and everything like that.  They also don’t have a clear indication, but from what I know, it’s that it was a very crowded place that they sort of went when they were in the UK, sorry in London."

The Daviest that night was a far cry from the one he had been for about a month. He had been going to school and grocery shopping with not just a mask, but gloves on too.

Life was still going as per normal in the city - there were no government-mandated precautions to take, school was still on and COVID-19 seemed a distant reality. Yet, with stories from Singapore bringing home the urgency to protect against the disease, he took the precautions, at the risk of sticking out like a sore thumb.

“Even at the grocery store, I would only touch things I needed. I’d discard the gloves after that in a box outside my house,” he said.

daviest ong in newcastle covid-19 68 days
Daviest Ong outside Newcastle University, where he read his degree in marketing and management (Photo: Daviest Ong)

While studying at the library, he would regularly make for the toilet with an urgent need to wash his hands. Hand sanitisers became a new accessory.

He took strict precautions, except for that night.

THE POSSIBILITY OF COVID-19

Shortly after, the Singapore Government appealed for students overseas to return, and Daviest did on Mar 20, along with three friends.

It was when he was back and on a Stay-Home Notice (SHN) that he realised something could be wrong. Two of his table tennis team mates, who had attended the party with him, called to say they had been infected.

He had a fever that at times hovered close to 40 degrees Celsius. He sought medical help, and shortly afterwards found out that he also had the infection.

“When we were at the party, my friends showed no signs. We were very relaxed,” he said.

Daviest had taken additional precautions even during his SHN. Instead of returning to live with his family, he received a kind offer from his aunt to stay at her place, while she went and stayed with her mother.

“I didn’t expect to get the virus, but I didn’t want to take chances,” he said.

He also took extra care on the flight home. “My friend wanted to drink out of my cup, but I told him no,” he said. He realised how important hygiene is in preventing the transmission of the disease, he said. 

READ: 'Special arrangement' made to fly Singaporeans, PRs back home from UK amid COVID-19 outbreak

Life has somewhat returned to normal for Daviest, and the only faint sign that he went through an illness for more than two months is his slight lack of smell. But still, he continues to heal from the experience.

“This whole journey has been very difficult. It’s not been just a physical battle, but a psychological battle,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This Editor’s Note addresses the concerns raised by Mr Ong, which he has shared on social media, following the publication of this story.  

Mr Ong was identified and offered for interview by public relations agency Asia PR Werkz on behalf of its client, the Public Hygiene Council. In their written pitch to CNA they said:  

“Daviest Ong was in his final-year in Newcastle University when the outbreak started. He not only increased his personal hygiene practices by washing his hands with soap and water frequently, he even wore gloves when he was out. He showered regularly after returning home and did extra loads of laundry to ensure that he was safe. Even though cases continued to spike, many in the UK lived their life normally. Daviest let his guard down one night, as he attended a school party. Under the influence of alcohol, he forgot his hygiene practices and danced to his heart's content. A few days later, he flew home to Singapore. He then developed a sore throat on the flight, and a fever on his second day back. He was then admitted to NCID and has been hospitalised for more than a month. He is hoping for a negative result for his upcoming swab test. He is able to share more on the following: How one mere oversight and a frivolous night of partying can lead to being infected. His message for others to not be complacent, especially youths who think they are invincible and will not be infected just because they are young.” 

During the interview, which was recorded, Mr Ong was asked about both his hygiene practices as well as a school party that he had attended. He spoke on-the-record about both these issues. Below is the transcript of the question asked and Mr Ong’s reply about the party he had attended.  

Reporter: "I understand there was a party you went to, yeah?"

Mr Ong: "Yeah, correct." 

Reporter: "Maybe you can tell me how, when that happened and what the party was for? And you know, how things basically ..."

Mr Ong: "In terms of the party, it was under a school event, actually. So like because as I mentioned, school was still going as per normal, so it was like a celebration kind of party for us, because like, it was right after us getting champions in my table tennis competition. So at that point of time it was a celebration under, it’s like, it’s like a school social event, where every Wednesday, we’ll have (unclear on recording). 

So like at that point of time, because school was going as per normal, I just, I felt like okay, I kind of let my guard down (unclear word) going to the party. Because it was actually early March, and I can remember Newcastle had four to five cases, either four or five. At that point of time, I let my guard down, so I went to the party. And then, I mean I still don’t have a clear indication of how I got the virus, but I’m just suspecting that it might be because I was carrying drinks, carrying cups, as well as, in the club you know like (unclear word) I was like perspiring, and I was wiping off my sweat, and I was touching my face even though I was touching like the surfaces of the tables, the chairs and everything like that. I didn’t wash my hands, basically too, before I touched my face, to be exact. 

So, and at that point of time, I didn’t know that my friends were contracted with the virus because they were, at that point of time, they were still asymptomatic. They were not sick, they showed no signs of sickness. But at that point of time, which is why we were just very relaxed and we didn’t really think about it. So after that when I returned to Singapore, that’s when my friends told me they were sick, and they had symptoms of the coronavirus. So that was when I realised I might have gotten it from them. And also, I think, if I remember correctly, that was the last time I went out in a mass gathering setting, so I kind of suspect that through, it’s from that night that I got the virus from, which is the two friends that also sort of got the virus. 

And they are suspecting that they got it from London, because they went to London a week before. And London was the epicentre of the UK virus outbreak. So, at that point of time, I think like they were telling me about how it was crowded there, so like they went for exhibition, museum exhibition, and then in the trains as well, it was all, like they were very exposed to a lot of people, because it was very crowded as well. So like, they, I think they have no idea how they even got the whole virus as well. Like, like they might have touched certain surfaces, and touched themselves on the face and everything like that. They also don’t have a clear indication, but from what I know, it’s that it was a very crowded place that they sort of went when they were in the UK, sorry in London."

The original article accurately reflects both the context and the substance of the interview. To clear up any doubt, we have added Mr Ong’s entire answer verbatim to the article.

BOOKMARK THIS: Our comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and its developments

Download our app or subscribe to our Telegram channel for the latest updates on the coronavirus outbreak: https://cna.asia/telegram

Source: CNA/ja

Bookmark