Dr. Jennifer Mather has a simple message for everyone about the COVID-19 pandemic — just stay home.
While Mather, a world-renowned cephalopod researcher and member of the University of Lethbridge’s Department of Psychology, doesn’t research the disease itself, she has a unique perspective on COVID-19 — having just recovered from the disease after contracting it during an overseas teaching trip in early March.
“It amazes me that some people are not self-isolating because it is the most logical, simple, straightforward, common sense thing to do,” said Mather, who was teaching in Denmark Mach. 9-13 as part of a one-week course on animal pain. “COVID is apparently really, really, really good at spreading but if you’re not near somebody, you can’t spread it.”
Mather’s case was mild, picked up somewhere between Denmark and Calgary, a trip that included a five-hour layover in one of the busiest and most cramped airports in the world in Frankfurt, Germany. It was a trip she debated taking in the first place.
“As my trip got closer, it was obvious there was Coronavirus but not much in Canada and not much in Denmark, just a few cases,” she said. “So, I had a choice between cancelling my commitment or going and, because they didn’t cancel the course, I felt as though I’d made a commitment and I needed to live up to it. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have gone, but we didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”
Mather arrived back in Canada on March 14 and, having read extensively on the COVID situation and what to do upon returning from travel, self-isolated in her home. She was feeling the effects of a cold but after a few days, when shortness of breath and nausea set in, she decided to call 811 and was instructed to take the self-assessment online questionnaire. When it advised she be tested, an appointment was booked at the Alberta Health Services (AHS) drive-by site. On March 18 she was tested and on the morning of March 23, her positive result was confirmed.
Even though she didn’t feel gravely ill, she admits to being fearful of the unknown.
“I’m over 65 and that clearly increases my risk for bad outcomes. I spent a lot of time with the public health nurse asking questions and unfortunately, most of the answers were ‘We don’t know,’ which is a really good way to generate fear.”
After being checked out at hospital, she was sent home with a quarantine order. A public health nurse checked in with her every day and she went through an exhaustive question-and-answer session to trace her contacts over the previous week. Fortunately, she had done everything right and only had one interaction with the taxi driver that took her home from the airport.
All the while, Mather continued to deliver her courses to her students.
“At that point, I and everyone else who was teaching were frantically changing our delivery system to remote and figuring out how to meet our teaching obligations,” she said. “I wasn’t sitting around, I was doing what everybody else was doing, figuring out how to teach properly.”
AHS cleared Mather on Monday, March 30, and lifted her quarantine, but again, it’s unknown what happens next. Does she have some immunity now? Nobody is quite sure.
“It’s not going to change my behaviour very much at all. Quarantine means absolutely no contact with anybody whatsoever, and social distancing means really don’t unless you really have to,” she said. “They do not consider me to be contagious anymore and they think I might have some resistance against the virus, but they don’t know.”
She applauds the U of L for its quick closure and shift to a remote working model and implores the rest of the community to take heed.
“I’m still the only person in the University community who has tested positive,” she said. “The fact there is only one person in the university community who has the disease, and I didn’t pick it up here, is a real tribute to the university’s lockdown procedures — clearly it worked.”
She also wants to lessen fears about COVID itself.
“I had a mild case and I think this is something that everyone doesn’t realize. The media spends a lot of time waving their hands about how many cases there are and how many people are dying and it’s true, people are dying. On the other hand, about 95 per cent are mild cases,” said Mather, recognizing that often perpetuates the disease’s spread. “The scary thing, from my perspective, is that because so many cases are mild, people don’t know they’ve got it. That’s why blanket lockdown works so well.”
“Isolation works,” she repeated over and over, and if anyone should know, it’s someone who lived with the disease and took all the right steps. “If I hadn’t had the cold on top of the COVID, I might not have gotten myself tested, but I’m happy I did,” she said. “I’m past the 14 days and I’m no longer contagious but it does take a while to get over this. You don’t rebound and feel well quickly. It’s been an interesting experience, and one I would have been very happy to skip.”