“Where am I isolating?” I repeated, extremely confused. “Why? I’m just at home. What do you mean?”
It was Friday morning, three days after I got swabbed for COVID-19, and I had just answered a call from an unknown number. On the other end of the line was my contact tracer, Mica, who threw the question at me so nonchalantly, I figured she probably does this on a daily basis. “You can’t stay at home,” she answered, unfazed. “You’re positive for COVID.”
Though it was still a complete shock to hear it laid out like that, it confirmed what I was beginning to suspect at that point. For the past five days, the first thing I would do in the mornings is try to take a sniff out of one of my Anapanasati essential oil bottles and make myself some Berocca in an effort to convince myself I could smell or taste something. But close to a week in, and no amount of Berocca or Vitamin C seemed to work somehow. If I hadn’t gotten swabbed, I would have been extremely worried about it by then.
It started with a mild headache, nothing out of the ordinary, the Thursday prior. I shrugged it off, chalking it up to dehydration after a cappuccino and two smaller cups of coffee. “You look tired,” my friend Christina admitted when I excused myself from hanging out with her that evening when we bumped into each other at the mall.
After sleeping it off, the headache was gone the following morning but the malaise had set in with a sore throat to match. I figured the latter was caused by all the sugar I added to my coffee the day before; it went away fairly quickly after I drank a lot of water. The malaise, I felt, was my exhaustion finally catching up to me after too much work and not enough sleep since the beginning of February.
It went on with accompanying exhaustion over that weekend—it was the tiredness, I thought, that was a little more overwhelming. I monitored my temperature just in case, but it stayed perfectly normal.
Having slept more in two days than I did the entire month so far, I felt well-rested and so much better when Monday rolled around—except I completely lost my senses of smell and taste, and my nose was also clogged. I started talking to my doctor friend about these symptoms because I was paranoid. She felt I had the common flu, but encouraged me to get swabbed in any case. At this point, I was a bit hesitant to do so because I felt my symptoms were too mild.
What finally spurred me on was finding out someone I had recently come into contact with was exposed to a COVID-positive patient. It couldn’t hurt to get tested, I supposed, but still hesitant, I looked into options that were free. As of press time, the local medical industry charges anywhere between Php 3,500-5,000 for an RT-PCR nasopharyngeal test, and I really felt my symptoms weren’t worth the expense.
I scheduled a swab test with the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center, but the available slots were still two weeks away. A few fingers helpfully pointed me to the Bayanihan Center at the IEC Convention Center, but they refused to take me in without a consult from a cluster clinic.
My friend Fiona told me about the Cebu City Sports Institute at Barangay Sawang Calero, one of five cluster clinics in Cebu. It was free, neat, organized, and had parking. At the spur of the moment, on my way to run an errand, I decided to just go there and see about this consult. Everything Fiona told me to expect was on point—what was a total surprise was that they swabbed me on the spot.
“You’re already here,” the healthcare worker, whose name I forget, assured me as she finished listing down all the symptoms I declared. “We swab people who are symptomatic.” The red flag, it seemed, was the sore throat, even if that lasted barely a morning. But hey, it saved me a trip to the Bayanihan Center (also, they were very confused about Bayanihan turning me down).
“Where do you live?” she continued. “We need to go to your home and swab your entire household.”
This stopped me in my tracks. All this time, I’ve only been thinking about myself (naturally), and was hoping to keep it on the down-low because I was so sure then that I was going to get a negative result anyway. But there was no backing out, not even to try to arrange whether my family could just go to the cluster clinic for it.
That night, I slept rather fitfully, worrying about a giant medical vehicle with COVID-19 emblazoned on the sides and how our neighbors would react to it. In reality, it was a giant jeepney in all its neon green glory, so I’m not exactly sure it counts as inconspicuous, but the staff didn’t make much of a fuss until we were safely shielded from the neighbors, so I appreciated their discretion.
One thing I realized from this whole ordeal is that the actual frontliners themselves are doing their darn best, just that they get screwed over by existing protocol and the people in charge. The ones I directly dealt with were professional, patient, and as thorough as they could be within their capacities and limitations, including resources. It’s an unfortunate reality, though a year into this pandemic makes me wonder how worse it could have been at the height of things.
“Sorry kaayo, ma’am, daghan kaayo mi’g gi kuha karon” said the medical worker when they finally picked me up via ambulance at 1:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. The past 13 hours had been a roller coaster after the bombshell that was my COVID result, a combination of the agony of waiting and the chaos of a household forced to suddenly make adjustments for me.
I had initially tried to appeal to the Department of Health (DOH) about isolating myself at home because my symptoms were very mild. They requested photos of my entire house, emphasis on me having my own bedroom and restroom. There were no promises, but before I got feedback, I changed my mind and relented to isolating myself in an accredited quarantine hotel.
Coordinating was both ways easy yet frustrating. I must have spent two hours on phone calls left and right, from Mica to the Cebu City Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and to my chosen hotel, Travelbee Capitol Inn. In order to book a room at an accredited hotel, you need to have your positive result with the EOC, which apparently takes a day after your test result. On my medical certificate, my result came out the day after I got swabbed. Biting aside some gripe on why no one told me right away, the silver lining was that I was able to confirm my room immediately.
Within an hour, I was packed and ready to go, two weeks’ worth of my life in a suitcase, a tote bag, and my purse. While waiting, I stayed in my room the whole day and was served my lunch and dinner on a tray, water from a designated bottle, and I had to inform everyone when I needed to use the restroom so they could all mask up and stay away from me. I also had to Lysol everywhere after myself.
This was a preview of life had I decided to stay around, and it was extremely challenging to request my family to tiptoe around me. It reinforced my decision to leave for a while.
Everyone I had talked to was fairly adamant about me getting transferred from my home to the hotel in an ambulance. At first, I attempted to get them to agree about me finding my own way via private transportation, but it seemed like it was going to be futile.
So I waited. And waited, then waited some more. The whole day I was on flight mode, ready to take off at a moment’s notice because I didn’t want to deal with the ambulance lingering outside my home longer than expected. I wanted to nap in the afternoon but I forced myself to stay up. Every time I tried to follow up with the EOC, no one would answer; Travelbee couldn’t do much about it.
I tried to pass the time reading up on other people’s COVID experiences, but that was a mistake. It sent me off worrying further about developing more severe symptoms, and my train of thought became increasingly morbid, I just tried to find other ways to stay occupied, which was rather futile.
Because of the constant anticipation (and now I know, COVID), I tired easily and was extremely cranky by the time 11:00 p.m. rolled around. Of course, the moment I decided I wasn’t gonna wait for them anymore was the time they called and said they were on their way. Then they took another hour, hence the apologies from the exhausted medical worker. One good thing about this was because of the time, there were no nosy neighbors to see me being whisked away in an ambulance.
The check-in process was straightforward: My keycard was already waiting on the front desk, itself covered by sheets of plastic to protect the hotel staff. The payment (Php 1,500 a night with full board meals) was to be settled at the end of my stay to prevent unnecessary contact. They took care of my luggage, disinfecting it before they carried it up to my room, where supplements sent ahead by my cousin Faye were waiting for me.
At 1:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, I settled in and began my true isolation.
My only gateway to the world was a monoblock chair outside my room. It’s where my meals and packages are placed, and beside it is where I would place my daily accumulation of trash in the evenings. I’d also leave money there if I needed the staff to buy me something (mostly ice—the hotel didn’t come with a fridge). Sometimes there would be a knock on my door, sometimes it would be a surprise, but almost always my provided meals show up on the chair right on schedule.
At times, when I’d put on my mask and swing open the door to pick up or put down something on the chair, I’d chance a longer look at the outside world, or what I could see of it anyway. But there wasn’t much from my vantage point except for a hallway with identical monoblock chairs outside each room.
My room was simple, but it was clean, newly renovated, and most importantly, private with its own bathroom. It looked like it was meant for three people because there was a single bed in addition to a queen-sized one. My frustrations, while thankfully minor, were just a really small window that barely got any sun, the lack of a fridge, and the lack of tables and storage space. I ended up getting a folding table and a laptop tray to help out with some of that, especially when eating.
Meals were a soulless, tasteless experience, purely for necessity instead of something I actually wanted to do (and the hotel food, while not terrible, was nothing to write home about). I couldn’t skip them, as I’m wont to do if I’m not hungry, because they were also the anchor for the medication I had to take.
Since my case was mild, close to asymptomatic even, my doctor put me on what she called “supportive therapy.” I took Vitamin C with Zinc (ImmunPro), Vitamin D3 (Forti-D), Melatonin, and Antihistamine for my clogged nose for a few days. I also took this Chinese herbal supplement Lianhua Qingwen Jiaonang at the insistence of my mom, four pills with every meal thrice a day. I was initially unsure about this supplement, but it turns out almost everyone who self-managed COVID was taking it. Upon light reading, it was also said to help speed up recovery but did not necessarily prevent things from getting worse.
I had been told to bring my own thermometer to monitor my own temperature. The hotel nurse would call twice a day to note it down and occasionally ask if there’s anything I’m feeling. I never developed a fever during my illness, thankfully, but towards the middle of the week, I started getting more prone to shortness of breath and fatigue, so I bought a pulse oximeter to keep track. My senses of smell and taste remained very weak, and a mild cough I had worsened towards the end of my stay, which earned me an extra day in isolation.
The real MVP, I felt, was my room’s air-conditioning unit. It was on for 24/7, for days on end. I couldn’t give it a break if I wanted to because my window won’t open. It did save me from the stifling summer heat, but it kept me cold enough to space out my showers every other day, especially with water heating temporarily unavailable. But I couldn’t smell anything, and I was alone, so did it really matter if I stank?
As someone who doesn’t actually mind being alone, I had mixed feelings about being in quarantine. 14 days seemed equal parts too long and not enough. I came equipped just in case—my camera for documenting the days, my laptop for work and leisure (I brought an HDMI cable with it), my Kindle, and a journal. If things got too dire, my backup was to have my brother bring over my Nintendo Switch.
It never got to that point. My initial plan to help pass the days by was to continue working but at my own pace. I even asked my doctor if I could just take all the melatonin I needed at night instead of spacing it out throughout the day so I could be more productive without being groggy.
But then I found myself drowning in frustration because even then, I couldn’t work as fast as I was used to. I needed to take frequent breaks to nap or catch my breath, and even sitting up for a Zoom meeting for 15 minutes was exhausting. It led to tasks piling up, and it was so overwhelming, feeling like I was the most overworked COVID-19 patient because I was barely getting the rest I knew I should be getting, but I could not stop.
I got a lot of admiring comments for it, but I honestly don’t mean to glorify working while one has COVID because you have to listen to your body’s needs. I am fortunate my symptoms were mild at best so I was able to be up and about, but I could have listened to my own advice because I pushed myself too hard. Thankfully it did not result in COVID-related complications, but it did end up in a complete mental breakdown that was a long time coming.
Somehow, the universe did listen and granted me an extra day in isolation; although the reason for it sucked, I took it as a sign and made the most out of my last day alone for the sake of my mental health.
On the brighter side of things, it was heartwarming to receive so many care packages delivered to my doorstep, most of them food. I sought comfort in those, especially, because the entire time I was there, my senses of smell and taste were weak, if not non-existent most of the time. Eating alone was a lot lonelier, but knowing people thoughtfully sent food and drinks to me made it a whole lot more bearable.
Some of the goodies I got. The others have been documented in my previous days’ journals.
It was also a care package that led me to my first breakthrough. A scented candle was the first thing I was able to smell, in which I was sure my mind was not playing tricks on me. It was very weak though; I could only clearly smell something if I hold it close to my nose, and even then it’s still 50-50. I could not smell my surroundings, which is why I had to be vigilant about taking out the trash in my room because who knew if it started smelling like food?
Additionally, while I loved getting all the care packages that I did, especially the surprise ones, I felt compelled to inform the ones who gave me a head’s up that I preferred something I can finish in one sitting or something that keeps well. Along with the lack of a fridge, I was totally unable to tell if anything would be spoiled.
I am never taking my senses for granted again. The lack of them sucked the life out of me, but every day I remained thankful that was the worst of it.
When I learned I had COVID-19, I initially kept things to immediate family, the people I had to inform for contact tracing purposes, and a selection of friends with access to my private Instagram Stories. I was hesitant about the stigma and the potential embarrassment, and I also worried if it would cost me some opportunities.
Instead, I was overwhelmed by a lot of well-wishes and a lot of questions. It struck me to realize just how little people know about what it’s really like. Until I tested positive and had to figure things out along the way, I was one of them. All I knew were all the politics and the statistics, but I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I also thought of how scared the sheer ignorance made me feel, which in turn made me consider how that could be so discouraging for other people.
COVID is scary, I’m not going to lie. But I don’t want people to be so afraid that they would opt not to take proper action, which I believe goes a long way in managing the spread of the coronavirus. If I could use the humble influence I have so people would have an understanding of what it’s really like, then I gladly would—and I did.
Since sharing my story, I’d like to think I was able to point a few people to resources they could utilize for themselves and their friends. Even just by answering their questions and satiating their curiosities, I felt, was a significant contribution already.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of COVID-related posts on social media that are rants about how terrible things were handled. Not to invalidate these anecdotes, but I was fortunate to have a (mostly) smooth-sailing experience, and it’s a story I wanted to share to highlight that it’s not always that bad. Again, we don’t need to scare off people from taking responsibility, whether it’s going into isolation or getting swabbed if they suspect they have it, or informing people if they do end up testing positive or were exposed to it.
I was very moved by the fact that the people I informed for contact tracing purposes acted accordingly. Offices that I had been to immediately conducted testing for their employees, while individuals either opted to get swabbed or isolated at home and kept an eye out for symptoms. While everyone thankfully tested negative, including my own family, this responsibility deserves more recognition and should be normalized. I can only hope it encourages other people to really be more proactive, because it really does make a difference in keeping things under control.
Today is Day 24 since I tested positive for COVID, and it’s been a little over a week since I came home from mandatory quarantine. It’s good to be back in my own bedroom, although I miss the non-stop air-conditioning. I would have loved to say things are back to normal, but the truth is, not quite.
Recovery is a frustrating process because it seems non-linear: One day I’m totally fine, and for the next two days I get knocked over by shortness of breath. It comes in the most unexpected of times, even when I’m doing something as mundane as washing the dishes or mentally preparing to go on a podcast.
My tasting and smelling are weird. Sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn’t. When I could smell something though, the scent would be off. I keep this roll-on bottle of lavender essential oil on my bedside table to help me sleep, and I’m very familiar with how it smells, but when I caught a whiff of it, it smelled completely different like it was stale.
Taste is a little weaker, but I’ve never really lost the ability to tell if something is sweet, sour, bitter, or spicy. I just could not determine a more distinct flavor, not even if it’s bland. Lately, it’s textures I’ve been enjoying—I’m obsessed with this mushroom chicharon my friend Kor sent me, and I still don’t know how it tastes, I just know it’s satisfyingly crunchy and it doesn’t make me feel icky like junk food does.
I still tire easily, far earlier in the day than what I was used to, but it’s enough to still be productive, which is well because I feel like I’ve been stuck in this cycle of catching up on things I missed, which is making me miss out on other things.
Sometimes I feel like crying about my exhaustion because I’m so frustrated at how slow I am being, which compels me to stay up longer to finish my tasks when all I want to do is sleep.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m being dramatic, this time for playing the COVID card. But the fatigue, despite all appearances, is no joke—I constantly have to remind myself I’m still recovering, and that I should set personal boundaries so I don’t work myself into getting sick again.
All these lingering symptoms aside, my bloodwork shows I’m fully recovered and not contagious anymore. Although I completed the full 14 days of quarantine, I wanted to make sure for my own piece of mind, as well as my family’s. I was told I will not be swabbed anymore after quarantine because a swab will come out positive for a while, so my doctor recommended I take a CLIA Test, a quantitative COVID-19 antibody test that was more sensitive and detailed than a rapid test.
Right after I checked out from the quarantine hotel, I went to MHAM Medical and Diagnostics Center in Banawa for my CLIA. Being a relatively new establishment, the place was not so crowded, and I was taken care of right away. I did arrive past 2:00 p.m., so my results were released the following morning; had I come earlier, I would have gotten it the same day.
The test, which cost Php 1,800, measured my IgM and IgG levels, which I am completely clueless about, but it apparently says I’m not acutely ill and not contagious. On the downside, I did not seem to mount a “potentially protective response” a.k.a. I am not immune. I also have no plasma to donate should I have wanted to.
Apparently, the milder your case is, the fewer antibodies you develop, which I suppose is a fair enough trade-off. More importantly, I’m officially out of the woods, which is the best outcome anyone can ask for.
COVID-19 was never in my plans, but I knew the longer the pandemic went on, the bigger the chances were that I would eventually get it. It just came so unexpectedly because I remain vigilant in practicing safety measures, from wearing masks, disinfecting my hands and my car regularly, practicing social distancing, and showering right away when arriving home. Even then, somehow, it was not enough.
But there are a lot of things to be grateful for, the fact that I had it relatively mild, that I had the option to isolate in a clean and private place, and that the experience of coordinating with the people in charge—while frustrating at times—was smooth-sailing. Also, that so many people are so kind and thoughtful, even friends who are not in my immediate circle yet went out of their way to send messages, prayers, and gifts.
It may sound strange to say, and I suppose it’s something that only comes with surviving it, but I’m also grateful to now know what it’s really like, to gain context and a deeper understanding not just about the coronavirus, but also of the entire experience. Now that I’ve gone through it all, I can say it goes beyond what symptoms you have. It’s humanity persevering when lives are on the line—patients valiantly fighting, healthcare workers steadfastly saving lives, and people who never expected to be frontliners rising above and beyond their line of duty.
It’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking to see from the point of view of a patient, especially with the news that the Philippines recently hit a new record-breaking number of cases, the highest since August 2020. It’s now a year in, and I know we’re all tired, but we can’t afford to be complacent. Seeing all these irresponsible gatherings and disregard of protocol is such a point of contention because there are actually people still taking this pandemic seriously, myself included.
This is something beyond ourselves—in fact, when I got COVID, mildly symptomatic as I was, it became less about me and more about not infecting other people who may not handle it as well as a 30-year-old with no pre-existing health issues can. I did not present obvious symptoms, so I really could have easily just gone around without bothering to quarantine and none would be the wiser, but where would that lead? Spreading it around some more, and possibly carrying it to someone immunocompromised, or perhaps exposing someone who lived with a senior citizen.
Wearing masks, social distancing, and regular disinfecting are simple yet significant efforts that can go such a long way in keeping yourself, your family, and the community safe. Up until the vaccine is rolled out to the public and we can all be immune, cooperating is one way we can have an advantage over COVID.
The coronavirus is literally an enemy we cannot see, but it doesn’t mean it’s not there. So many lives have been changed by it already, loved ones lost and livelihoods affected—but we can’t let it win. We shouldn’t let it win, not even when we get it.
If you made it all the way to this point, I hope reading about my experience is insightful. Though it’s going to be different for everyone, I believe having an idea of it’s really like, even just enough to act responsibly, is a start.
Disclaimer: These details stand as of March 18, 2021, and are subject to change over time.
Where can I get tested for free?
You can get an RT-PCR test from the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center for free, but currently, the waiting line is almost two weeks.
The Bayanihan Cebu Swabbing Center is also free with priority given to private individuals with symptoms (among others), but when I called, I was told to consult with a cluster clinic first. A pregnant friend and a family member with a request from her doctor (a requirement for a medical procedure) were both able to get swabbed.
When I found a cluster clinic, they did swab me on the spot, and it was free of charge.
What are cluster clinics?
Cluster clinics are hubs established for influenza-like illnesses (ILIs), so if you feel like you have the common flu but want to make extra sure, you can consult these places. I feel like they’re such underutilized resources.
As mentioned above, they do swab you for free; if they flag you as symptomatic they will swab your whole family as well.
Where can I find a cluster clinic?
- North Area: Pit-os Gym, Barangay Pit-os
- South Area: Brotherhood Gym, Barangay Basak San Nicolas
- West Area: Cebu City Sports Institute, Barangay Sawang Calero
- East Area: Tinago Gym, Barangay Tinago
- Central Area: Cebu Medical Society Compound, Barangay Banilad
Technically, I should have gone to the Brotherhood Gym, but the Cebu City Sports Institute had no issue about me being from the south.
Where can I quarantine?
I was not able to ask my contact tracer about government facilities, so I cannot give a definitive answer. I know of the Cebu City Quarantine Center because we had donated some resources there last year. I am also aware the Bayanihan Center at the IEC Convention Center of Cebu is also an isolation center, so it might be worth checking out.
I chose an accredited quarantine hotel, the Travelbee Capitol Inn, at personal expense. Other options I was given were the following:
To book these hotels, you need to have your positive result on the Cebu City Emergency Operations Center‘s linelist. This usually takes a day after your result comes out.
Can I quarantine at home?
In Cebu City, it’s a hard no. I tried. My contact tracer requested photos of my entire home, indoors and outdoors, to see if I had a bedroom and bathroom of my own, if my room was far from other places, etc. I changed my mind before I could see this process through.
From conversations with friends, apparently Mandaue City and Talisay City are more lenient about this. It also depends if the whole household tested positive for COVID.
How many days do I have to stay in quarantine?
A minimum of 10 days if you’re asymptomatic, a full 14 days (i.e. you go home on day 15) if you still have some symptoms. I did the full 14 because my cough was still there on day 11. Also, the count starts when you get swabbed.
Do I get swabbed after?
No, because I’m told you might still come out positive. It’s optional, but since I really needed some peace of mind about how I was, my doctor made me get CLIA, a quantitative COVID-19 antibody test. My results showed I was no longer acutely ill and not contagious, but I did not develop immunity.
I had my CLIA done at MHAM Medical and Diagnostic Center along R. Duterte Street, Banawa. It cost Php 1,800. Results come out the same day if you get tested before 2:00 p.m., but since I did not make the cut-off, I received mine in my e-mail the following day.
For any more questions, feel free to leave a comment below. Please note that I am not a medical professional and cannot give advice, I can only speak from personal experience. Stay safe, everyone!