Britain’s first Covid-19 patient has spoken on how her condition mystified doctors and almost cost her life.
Fifty-one-year-old Joanne Rogers presumed she had caught the flu in late January – but it turned out to be something far worse and she was rushed to hospital two weeks later, reports the Mirror.
During that time it was thought Covid-19 was restricted to a small number of people recently arrived from abroad.
In reality coronavirus was already spreading through the population and just a month later the country was put into lockdown in an effort to curb the pandemic.
Joanne, a cleaner from Colchester, Essex, says she is still suffering a severe form of Long Covid eight months on from being the earliest known confirmed case of person-to-person transmission in the UK.
After being ill in bed for a fortnight, Joanne was rushed to hospital on February 15 in an ambulance after her worried partner Richard Shepherd called NHS 111.
In these very early stages of the pandemic, nine people were being isolated by Public Health England – mainly Chinese students and handful of people who had come in to contact with an infected person at a French ski resort – and the Government was still hoping to avoid a UK outbreak.
Joanne told the Mirror: “I felt a bit of a fraud to have an ambulance coming out for me because I just thought I had the flu.
“One of the last things I remember was going into resus and joking with the doctor, saying, ‘I’m not going to die am I?’ He said: ‘Not on my shift.’”
But just 24 hours later she was put in an induced coma after being diagnosed with pneumonia, undergoing a tracheostomy, in which a tube is inserted into the windpipe just below the vocal chords.
Doctors struggled to understand what was causing such a severe bout of pneumonia and could only put on Joanne on a ventilator to give her body a chance to battle the mystery illness.
However, the virus had triggered a potentially fatal overreaction of the body’s immune system known as a ‘cytokine storm’.
Drugs have since been shown to help dampen this immune response in Covid-19 patients, but at the time the doctors treating Joanne were working blind.
Daughter Lauren, 20, said: “Richard came home one day and told me to sit down. He’d been told it was 50/50. He started crying and said, ‘I don’t think your mum is going to make it’.”
Joanne had not recently been abroad and has no idea how she could have caught the virus.
She took no test during her 17 days in intensive care. When she finally got an antibody test in June it confirmed she had had the virus.
Prof Francois Balloux of University College London said: “I think this will be the earliest documented confirmed case in the UK.
“It’s quite reasonable to believe this was circulating in January.
“Back then no one could have predicted what a catastrophe this would be. I’m absolutely convinced there will have been quite a few undiagnosed cases.
“It is estimated there were around 1,400 separate introductions of Covid-19 in to the UK. That’s why in the UK, unlike other countries, there’s really no such thing as a Patient Zero because so many places had it. This made it very difficult to control here.”
Joanne suffered terrifying dreams in her 12-day coma, which continue to this day. She suffers anxiety, extreme fatigue and continuous muscle pain, but her sick pay ended this month and she was turned down for Personal Independence Payments, because Long Covid is not recognised as a disability.
So she has been forced to go back to work, but can only manage two hours a day.
She said: “I’ve been told it could last a month for every day I was in intensive care.” Lauren added: “Mum’s not getting better because she’s had to go back to work. It’s such a vicious cycle.”
Until now the first person known to have contracted the virus in the UK – known as Patient 1 – was a 75-year-old woman from Surrey, identified via a test sample given on February 21.