Alaska News

This Alaskan got COVID-19 and recovered. Four months later, she got infected again - and felt much worse.

In May, the first time Ida Norton found out she had tested positive for the coronavirus, she was scared.

She was worried about the people she may have unknowingly infected, and shocked that somehow, despite her many precautions — including social distancing, and cleaning her house so often that some of her clothing had bleach stains — the virus had still somehow reached her.

The second time she got infected, more than four months later, she felt worse.

“Life’s not fair, definitely,” she said.

Norton is among more than 19,000 Alaskans who have been infected with the coronavirus. She’s also one of a small group of people infected with the virus more than once.

Nationwide, there have been relatively few confirmed cases of reinfection by the virus.

Most evidence suggests the majority of those who recover from COVID-19 have a degree of immunity for at least three months following initial diagnosis, and that likelihood of reinfection even after that is rare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alaska health officials said this week they have so far seen a small number of potential cases of reinfection in Alaska.

“This pandemic has been going on for a while,” said Dr. Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state. “So we have had people present with respiratory symptoms that are definitely 90 days beyond the first time they were sick.”

She said her team has been in talks with the CDC about how best to process such cases, because the only way to truly determine a case of reinfection versus a long-lasting initial infection is to sequence DNA strands of the viruses both early on and after three months has passed to determine if they are unique, she said.

Castrodale added that while cases of reinfection have been rare so far, that could change going into late fall and winter as the virus continues to spread.

“There’s a lot of interest (in this topic), and not a lot of answers at this point,” she said.

The first time

On the same day in May that her first positive result came back, Norton recorded an emotional Facebook Live video to her friends and family, encouraging them to get tested if they had been in contact with her in recent days.

“Right now I’m kind of freaking out,” she told them, her voice breaking. “Praying it doesn’t get worse than it is now.”

Afterward, she said, she got a lot of friend requests from friends of friends who wanted to hear about her experience.

“Not enough to get internet famous, just enough for me, in the Native community, to say, ‘Hey, this is still spreading, don’t get too relaxed, things like that’" she said.

Norton, 49, is an office specialist at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and is originally from Selawik, a village in Northwest Alaska nearly 100 air miles from Kotzebue. She now lives in Anchorage along with eight of her nine kids, plus three grandchildren, her coparent, her brother and some cousins.

The first positive result Norton got back was from a routine test offered weekly through work — and at that point she had no symptoms.

The night before her results came back, she had spent time indoors with her older brother, who is 62, dividing up a shipment of muktuk.

“I was so devastated that I had shared air with him,” Norton said.

Over the next two weeks, Norton said, she felt lucky that her symptoms never got bad: She had no fever or cough but some tightness in her chest and a sore throat.

While she was in isolation, Norton says, she did everything she could to keep her family from getting sick: She wore a mask anytime she left her bedroom. She cleaned the bathroom after each use. She sprayed her door with Clorox every morning before anyone got up, and lined the space under her bedroom door with a towel as an added precaution. Her daughters left plates of food for her by her door.

Her efforts worked: No one else in her family tested positive for the virus in May.

“I was able to keep my children safe,” she said.

The second time

In late September, long after Norton had fully recovered from the virus and returned to work, she woke up one autumn day with what felt like the flu.

She had a fever, and getting out of bed was difficult. So she got tested again, just to be safe. She’d gotten multiple negative tests back since her recovery. This time, her result came back positive. Again.

Within the week, nearly her entire family tested positive too. She thinks she most likely got it from one of them — she drives her son to work every day and sees her family nearly every day. But there’s no way to know for sure.

Her symptoms were worse the second time, she said.

“I had a fever every day for just eight days straight,” she said. “And I just did not want to get out of bed.”

In most known cases of COVID-19 reinfection, people have milder cases the second time, said Joe McLaughlin, a public health epidemiologist with the state, on a call with reporters this week.

But he said there have been a couple recent articles about cases in which the second infection resulted in a more severe illness, as was the case with Norton.

“In one case, the patient had an initial infection and then got reinfected and died,” he said. “These two cases that were recently reported in the medical literature suggest that reinfection can be serious in some people."

More than a month since Norton was diagnosed the second time, she has a sore throat that won’t entirely go away and her lungs still hurt.

“It’s not constant, but when I talk a lot, or talk faster, it’s there,” she said. She’s certain that this time there has been lasting damage to her lungs and throat and has scheduled an appointment with a primary care physician and a cardiologist, she said.

Norton also wasn’t able to take any more paid time off work this time, since she used up all available leave in May.

“I missed a whole pay period,” she said. She wasn’t sure how she was going to be able to pay rent, her phone and internet bill, plus child support.

Her coworkers surprised her by starting an online funding campaign, which she said raised more money than what she normally makes in two weeks.

“So that was a lifesaver,” she said.

Lasting worries

Norton is mostly better now, and her life has gone back to normal. But she says one of the lasting effects of having the virus twice has been “the mental health part."

“It has taken a lot of emotional and mental energy for me to get through this,” she said. “And I still deal with it - not to the extent where I’m making poor choices, but I get anxiety," she said.

She said it has been difficult to watch the news and hear about coronavirus deaths in Alaska, and she has been especially worried about the surging cases in rural parts of the state in recent weeks. She has made an appointment to see someone about her mental health.

She continues to worry, too, about people back in Selawik, where some of her family still lives, and that the nearest hospital is in Kotzebue.

“People travel by snowmachine in the winter, and boat in the summer, but that’s no way to go the hospital,” she said. Some people she knows there are scared of getting the virus, and some don’t worry about it all.

Norton worries most of all about tribal elders, who live in villages all over the state and are at a higher risk of getting severe illness from the the virus because of their age, according to the CDC.

“It’s not just my community I’m worried about, I’m worried about all of them," she said.

Norton says she feels thankful to be alive and hopes never to be infected with the virus again.

“I don’t know if I could survive getting it again,” she said.