No cough, no fever: Symptoms of some COVID-19 patients don't line up with conventional wisdom

If Al and Martha Bradbury hadn’t been on a cruise ship where there were confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Winnipeg couple may never have associated their symptoms to the virus.

Experiences appear to show large degree of variation in how coronavirus affects people

Al and Martha Bradbury were on the Costa Luminosa cruise ship in early March but cut their trip short when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians abroad to come home. Al is one of 549 passengers who later tested positive for COVID-19. (Provided/Martha Bradbury)

If Al and Martha Bradbury hadn't been on a cruise ship where there were confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Winnipeg couple say they would never have associated their symptoms with the virus.

"We didn't get the traditional [symptoms]," said Al. "There was nothing with a fever. There was nothing with a cough. But it was quite exhausting. I was quite exhausted. My body was sore, headaches."

The couple boarded the Costa Luminosa for a Caribbean and trans-Atlantic cruise in March but had to cut their trip short because of the pandemic. Including Al, 549 passengers have since tested positive for the virus. 

Martha's test came back negative, but a public health nurse told her she most likely had COVID-19. She had the same symptoms as her husband, for the most part: body aches, dizziness and headaches.

"They haven't done a very good job of communicating that there are actually other symptoms to this virus. They are so focused on the fever over 38 degrees, the cough and the respiratory issues that they don't realize that there are so many other symptoms that come along with this," said Martha.

 Al also had sore joints and what felt like pressure in his sinuses.

'I was ready to chalk it up to … just a minor cold'

Steven and Kirsten Wirth didn't develop a cough or high fever either. They felt sick after returning home from a business trip to Las Vegas in early March.

"I was ready to chalk it up to … just a minor cold. I didn't stop working from home. I'm still working 10-, 12-hour days. And… I had a lot of muscle soreness and fatigue and some chest pressure," said Steven.

The couple was tested for COVID-19 but only Steven's test came back positive. 

Steven and Kirsten Wirth were on a business trip in Las Vegas in March. Both felt sick when they returned, but only Steven tested positive for COVID-19. (Submitted)

"I had the exact same symptoms as him," said Kirsten. "They were treating me as though positive because I was with somebody who was confirmed positive the whole time."

The Wirths say their eight-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son were also sick, but were not tested.

"Their symptoms were different. They were just borderline fever the whole time," said Steven. "They were just sluggish. My son complained a few times about (being) too tired to hold his phone up to play his game. He was (sick) three days tops. And she was 24 hours."

Boston doctor still testing positive six weeks after infection

At first, Dr. Jack Turban had a runny nose and didn't think much of it.

"I thought it was allergies," said Turban, a resident physician in psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Maybe two days of a runny nose and then the cough started … that's when I had the bad headaches. And really the worst of the symptoms were maybe three or four days and then it kind of lingered until it was just the cough."

His boyfriend also tested positive for COVID-19, but his bout with the virus was a little different, and started with gastrointestinal problems.

"He had a day where he was vomiting constantly throughout the day and I never had those symptoms," said Turban.

Dr. Jack Turban, resident physician in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been symptom-free for a month but continues to test positive for COVID-19. (Submitted)

He's heard of people getting sick again two weeks after they got better. He's been symptom-free for a month but won't be cleared to go back to work unless he gets two negative tests at least 24 hours apart.

"The risk is so high that if I were to go into the hospital and be in the emergency room or be on the medical floors, just the risk of me spreading it around is too high."

Turban has had five tests so far and only one came back negative.

"It very well may be that I don't have active infection and I just have a bunch of leftover dead viral particles up in my nose that we keep seeing," said Turban.

In the meantime, Turban has been treating patients virtually from home. He will be tested again next week, and hopes it comes back negative.

Not all symptoms on Manitoba's COVID-19 list

Manitoba's online screening tool asks users a series of questions to determine if they should be tested for COVID-19 including if they've experienced certain symptoms. They include shortness of breath, speaking in single words, chest pain, confusion, extreme drowsiness or loss of consciousness, fever, cough or sore throat.

They're also asked if they've experienced two or more of the following symptoms for more than 24 hours: runny nose, muscle aches, fatigue, loss of taste or smell, headache, hoarse voice or nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer says while there are some symptoms not on that list, medical professionals can use their discretion when deciding who should be tested. 

"Certainly if a clinician feels that the individual in front of them needs to be tested for COVID-19 that can absolutely be done," said Dr. Brent Roussin.

He said the province has been adding to the list of symptoms and continues to evaluate it.

About the Author

Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: