Cleaner from Essex was UK’s first confirmed Covid case – and she’s still suffering
The first coronavirus patient known to have contracted the disease in Britain has told how she nearly died as her illness mystified medics.
Joanne Rogers, 51, fell ill with what she thought was flu in late January, before the first UK cases had been confirmed.
When she was rushed to hospital two weeks later, health chiefs were still insisting Covid-19 was restricted to a small number of people recently arrived from abroad.
But the virus was already spreading through communities, and just over a month later so many cases were being treated in hospital that the country was put into lockdown.
The Mirror can now reveal cleaner Joanne from Colchester, Essex, is the earliest known confirmed case of person-to-person transmission in the UK. And eight months on, she is still suffering a severe form of Long Covid.
Joanne had been ill in bed for a fortnight when worried partner Richard Shepherd called NHS 111 for advice on February 15. An ambulance was sent to blue-light Joanna to hospital.
At the time, 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. Joanna 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 in to resus and joking with the doctor, saying, ‘I’m not going to die am I?’ He said: ‘Not on my shift.’”
Within 24 hours she was diagnosed with pneumonia and put in an induced coma. It was the start of a gruelling illness from which she has yet to recover.
Joanne underwent a tracheostomy, in which a tube is inserted in to the windpipe just below the vocal chords.
Medics had no idea 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 massive, potentially fatal overreaction of the body’s immune system known as a “cytokine storm”.
A small number of 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.”
The UK death toll rose by 151 to 44,896, with 19,790 new cases.
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.
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