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Covid-19 in the community

Seeking help when Covid symptoms got worse

This page explores the experiences of people who contacted healthcare services for help when Covid symptoms got worse. This involved ringing 111 or a GP, who would help assess whether they should call an ambulance. The ambulance would take them to hospital if they needed more support.

The topics covered here include: 

  • Understanding when to ask for help as symptoms worsened
  • Challenges accessing support when the NHS was under pressure

 
Understanding when to ask for help as symptoms worsened

Difficulty breathing was the main reason people asked for help from healthcare services while they were ill with Covid. 
 

 

Gulsoom thought her father had a normal cold or flu until he rapidly deteriorated and struggled to breathe.

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Gulsoom thought her father had a normal cold or flu until he rapidly deteriorated and struggled to breathe.

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And then we went into lockdown two and then my father started getting ill and we just thought it was normally, normal cold flu symptoms but he got really really ill, so for two weeks he deteriorated, and he really struggled with his breathing, and he was gasping for air. So I went to go see him and we rang the doctor and the doctor goes, “He’s got Covid pneumonia. You need to rush him to hospital.”


 
People also sought advice when other symptoms worsened quickly or continued after several days of looking after themselves at home. Goutam rested and ‘tried all strengths of paracetamol’ but was still getting sicker. The common symptoms that people sought help for included:

  • Fevers and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that weren’t there) 
  • Severe headaches 
  • Body pain 
  • Violent coughing, or coughing up blood 
  • Blood in vomit 
  • Fainting or collapsing 

 

 

Medhi contacted 111 when he noticed he had blood in his vomit.

Medhi contacted 111 when he noticed he had blood in his vomit.

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I had a pain in all of, all of my body and I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink. Lots of vomiting, sometimes two days, two days, I had blood in my vomiting, so I ring to 111. The person said to me, “Oh you should, you must ring to 999 to bring you to hospital.” I called 999 and an ambulance came to our garden and they’re monitoring everything, and they said, “Oh no worries, this this blood is not from your lung. You must stay at home and if you go to hospital maybe will be worse for you.” So, I didn’t go to hospital and I just stay at home.

 

Esther couldn’t eat and had a very bad fever so she called 111 for advice.

Esther couldn’t eat and had a very bad fever so she called 111 for advice.

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Yes, because at one point I had a really, really, really bad fever and just wasn’t able to eat. Wanted to throw up. But also didn't have anything to throw up. And was just having a really bad time. Yeah and just you know, feeling hot and cold and shivery and, you know, and sweating, all of that. I think it was like a particularly bad point where we said, let’s just call 111 yeah, 111 and see what they say.

 

Sonal’s husband called 111 because she had pain all over her body and ‘tons of pressure’ in her head.

Sonal’s husband called 111 because she had pain all over her body and ‘tons of pressure’ in her head.

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I couldn't talk. I was coughing continuously, pain in my chest, pain in my stomach, pain in back, back of my shoulder and middle part and everywhere. And I couldn't talk. And like lots of pressure on my head. Tons of pressure on my head. I started putting like a towel around really tight. I used to stay like that all the time, even in hospital. Yeah and then my husband goes, “You got something wrong and I need to call ambulance.”


 
It was often family, friends and neighbours who contacted healthcare services when someone was ill, because they were too sick to do it themselves. Dawn was very worried about her friend who was hallucinating and couldn’t breathe. Surindar’s husband called the GP when she had a high fever that didn’t get better.
 
 

Cindy was struggling to breathe and collapsed so her daughter called an ambulance.

Cindy was struggling to breathe and collapsed so her daughter called an ambulance.

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I started to have to isolate myself because I live with my daughter in a coach house. This means it’s only got one floor so I sleep in, I slept on the living room and my daughter was living in her bedroom. So in one morning, I think, the next day morning, I was really, really struggle to take any, I was really bad, very struggle to breathing as well. And then I get a sign for my daughter and she was very clever. She straight away she call one, 111 I think or she call the ambulance. So, which is I was really unconscious. I don’t know, what’s, fully picture of this because I’m fully, I’m really unconscious and I can still hear the sound and I hear somebody ask me to open my eye but then I was so struggle but, according to my daughter, say they was pull me up and just try to get me back so breathing again. And because again, on that day, I was not that worse to be sent to the hospital. They told my daughter, look after me and if I really, really struggle, call 999 again.


 
Some people had access to devices that could measure the oxygen level of their blood, usually an oximeter or a smartwatch. This provided extra information about how ill they were and if they should seek extra support. A GP came to check Laurie’s blood oxygen level with an oximeter and advised her to carry on recovering at home. When Laszlo saw that he had a blood oxygen level of below 90%, he knew this meant he needed extra help.
 
 

Laszlo’s wife called an ambulance when his oxygen level fell very low.

Laszlo’s wife called an ambulance when his oxygen level fell very low.

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I was really doubting myself that I’m going to make it just by staying home. So, when this little pulse oximeter has arrived, we popped it on my finger and I was shocked to see that my oxygen level were around eighty percent, which was way below even for, way below normal even for someone who has a respiratory condition such as COPD or asthma. Then, when I started walking up the stairs, those oxygen levels went even lower down to approximately sixty five, seventy percent, so that was the moment when my wife said, “This is a no brainer. We need to call the ambulance.”


 
Sometimes worrying symptoms were not a result of Covid. Though breathlessness was frightening for June and Tony, it was a result of a panic attack rather than a worsening of Covid symptoms.
 
 

Tony Z was worried about a tight chest but was reassured after paramedics checked him.

Tony Z was worried about a tight chest but was reassured after paramedics checked him.

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The only time I really had any concerns because during the time when I had Covid, I got to one day where I don’t know if it was anxiety or what, but my chest got really, really tight and it started beating a lot faster than it should and I was getting very concerned. So concerned, I called the emergency services. They came and they did, you know, blood pressure, diabetes, sugar levels. I got tested for absolutely everything’s and said, “You’re fine.” Probably I was, just probably got anxious with not feeling well and stuff like that and so but that was the only one time I feel, ‘oh this is going, not so much I’m not in control with what I’m feeling,’ but, you know, the, I just thought my health wasn’t, I wasn’t in control of my health. It started to grow out of my control in terms of how it, how I felt and how it affected it me so that was the one time.

 
Challenges accessing support when the NHS was under pressure

High numbers of people with Covid places additional pressure on the NHS. Before most of the population was vaccinated, there were times during the pandemic when many people were very ill and seeking help from ambulance services at once. March/April 2020 and January/February 2021 were particularly busy months for hospitals. Mudasar caught Covid in March 2020. He said that at the time you ‘had to be on your deathbed’ to see a doctor.
 
Due to the pressure hospitals were facing, healthcare services prioritised supporting people who they judged were extremely sick. Mr. Eshaan was very ill with Covid in March 2020 and was advised by the paramedics who visited him that it was better for to try to recover at home because the hospital was so busy.
 

 

Mr Eshaan was advised that if he went to hospital he ‘might not come back’.

Mr Eshaan was advised that if he went to hospital he ‘might not come back’.

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The worst thing is they said to my wife, “What do you want us to do? Shall we take him in, you know. Take him in. What’s happening at the hospitals, right now just leaving them out there. We don’t know when he will be seen, you know. And if he does go I think as I was saying, he may not come back, you know.” And that was the most frightening thing, you know. When you heard on the news at the time what was going on, you know and then I had a friend who was a doctor and he told me why let, let him stay at home, you know. He had heard of what, actually happening at the NHS. So, my wife made that decision, she goes, “He’s not going nowhere, you know. He’s staying here.”


 
Even for people who urgently needed support, it was sometimes difficult to access healthcare services. In December 2020, Gulsoom spent hours on the phone trying to get an ambulance when her father’s condition got worse. Elvis was frustrated that he had to ring his GP and 111 several times over a week in April 2020 to convince them to send an ambulance for his father.
 
 

Elvis was frustrated that his father’s Covid symptoms had to get worse before paramedics would visit.

Elvis was frustrated that his father’s Covid symptoms had to get worse before paramedics would visit.

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But things deteriorated, and before that we had contacted the ambulance to tell them, “Look our father is not breathing properly, he is short of breath, he is cold, he has signs of Covid. What can we do, can you come and collect him?” So they were asking him questions, you know, and they said to him, basically, “You are, the symptoms that you have, we can’t take you today, to the hospital, there is no need. You need to, to stay at home until your, symptoms become worse. And if you are worse, the situation is worse, then you can tell us to come and pick you up.” And I was like, does someone have to be that, in that situation to be agrav- the situation to be aggravated, and then we have to come, or you can come early and try to have early intervention to stop it, but they refused, you know.

So on Friday evening, we saw that the situation was not going forward, you know. We had prepared a supper for my father but then again he was not, he was not drinking. That’s when we called the ambulance again, the second time the next, on Friday, and then we expressed our fear. We told them that basically he, the situation is worse, he can’t breathe properly, you know, he is short of breath, he’s hot, he’s coughing. He coughing and then and then there is no things coming out from the cough, it’s a dry cough, and we need some support, some help. And that’s when the ambulance came, you know.


 
During busy periods people were sometimes advised to travel to hospital themselves, as this was quicker than waiting for an ambulance to take them. Emdad took his wife to hospital in their car and waited overnight while she was being checked. Emma was anxious about spreading Covid to other people if she took her mother to hospital in a taxi so decided to keep her at home.
 
 

Emma was confused by advice to take a taxi to hospital when her mother had Covid symptoms.

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Emma was confused by advice to take a taxi to hospital when her mother had Covid symptoms.

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When we called the ambulance the second time, the lady, who we spoke to, forgotten what she said she was, some title, she said that, we should call, get a cab and take her to the hospital. So my daughter said to her, “Well, there’ve been public service announcements saying that, if somebody had certain symptoms which indicated it might be covid, they shouldn’t take public transport.” But she said she should do it anyway because the ambulances were busy and might be some time before they came, came by us.


 
The difficulty of accessing support at these times was disappointing. Goutam felt ‘deserted’ when he couldn’t get help as his symptoms worsened. Miura said she felt ‘lonely, isolated and like nobody cared for you’.
 

 

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