Edmonton couple wants to break stigma around talking about positive COVID-19 tests

After all the steps he'd taken to stay safe from COVID-19, Kris Harvey was scared to talk about the illness when he learned he'd tested positive.

Kris Harvey and Victoria Balint worry some may feel discouraged to talk about testing for the illness

Kris Harvey and Victoria Balint tested positive for COVID-19, and publicized their story to encourage others to feel comfortable talking about their experiences with the illness. (Supplied by Kris Harvey)

After all the steps he'd taken to stay safe from COVID-19, Kris Harvey was scared to talk about the illness when he learned he'd tested positive.

Harvey and his partner Victoria Balint tested positive earlier this month. And worse than their concern about this illness, they said, was the fear they may have unwittingly been the reason friends or family contracted the illness, too.

"Worse than the symptoms, I felt so scared that we spread it. That we spread it to, of course, our family, that we spread it to our friends camping," Balint said. "We were terrified."

Now that they're recovered, Harvey, 39, wants to be open about the experience, calling for discussing the illness to be normalized.

Harvey and Balint said they tried everything to stay healthy. They wore masks, practised physical distancing and carried hand sanitizer wherever they went. Harvey said they still aren't even sure how they contracted the illness in the first place.

But in June, they noticed mild cold symptoms. They initially chalked them up to just a minor cold or allergies, but wanted to self-isolate anyway. They had plans to visit family in Calgary and go back-country camping with friends which they tried to cancel until their friends and family assured them they could still visit and stay physically distanced.

When they returned home, Harvey and Balint felt tired and congested, but they didn't have some well-known telltale signs of COVID-19, such as fever or a cough. But after filling out an online Alberta Health Services assessment that recommended they be tested, they knew in four days they were positive for COVID-19.

After the diagnosis, Harvey shared the news on Facebook. He said he knew people who were worried that some might test positive and lie about it, so Harvey wanted to be as transparent as possible. Testing positive for COVID-19 is scary enough on its own without also having to worry about the backlash you might receive from others, he said.

"I think a lot of people are ashamed to even mention they've been tested or they're isolating or they've tested positive," said Harvey, who was interviewed Monday on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

Harvey said that of the 15 to 20 people he and Balint were in contact with since experiencing symptoms, none tested positive for COVID-19.

The World Health Organization warns about a social stigma attached to COVID-19 because of how much isn't known about the disease. The stigma can drive people to hide their illness, prevent people from seeking care or discourage healthy behaviours, the WHO warns.

Canada's federal government also warns the stress on communities of the COVID-19 pandemic can lead to social stigma, mental health issues and discrimination. The recommendation includes showing support and kindness for people who have COVID-19 or are tested for it.

Harvey said he was worried after seeing some restaurants and bars in downtown Edmonton, — like Greta Bar, The Pint, Earls Tin Palace, MKT and Round 2 — shamed and criticized after they closed temporarily when staff and patrons tested positive for COVID-19, for not handling their reopening safely enough. He said he felt people were too quick to blame the businesses.

"We don't feel that same demand for accountability at Shoppers Drug Mart when they're tested positive, or a grocery store," Harvey said. "I felt it was pushing people further underground."

Harvey and Balint received positive messages and care packages while sick. Some of the messages asked them for more information about what it was like to be tested and fall ill with COVID-19, while others who had also tested positive thanked them for being open about their experience.

"People are really curious," Balint said. "People just want to know what is the process, even for being tested and finding out? ... What are the symptoms like?"

Both are mostly recovered now, Harvey said, with a slightly decreased sense of taste and smell still lingering. Harvey said he hopes his story can help others who feel discouraged from talking about their own experience with the illness.

COVID-19 testing is available to anyone in Alberta, whether they are showing symptoms or not. Tests can be booked through Alberta Health Services' online assessment, and testing will soon also be available in 20 pharmacies around the province.