COVID ‘long haulers’
Three weeks after “recovering” from COVID-19, Wyatt was still not back to normal. What started in late July with the slightest sore throat morphed into debilitating fatigue and body aches. By mid-August, the worst symptoms were gone, and according to medical guidance, the 36-year-old Winonan had defeated his active coronavirus infection. But like many patients, some of COVID’s effects — in his case, nausea and diarrhea — stuck with him long after.
“I have headaches now every day,” Sarah, a 30-year-old Winonan, told the Post. She fell ill in the first week of July and spent a month battling with active COVID infection symptoms. Another month later, her body was still coping with the after effects. “I had all of those G.I. [gastrointestinal] symptoms they talk about,” Sarah stated. “That lingered to the point where I would have issues with diarrhea every time I ate … I still can’t stay hydrated.”
When she was actively sick, Sarah had many of COVID’s more common symptoms: sore throat, runny nose, difficulty breathing, fatigue, and loss of taste and smell. She also had more bizarre ones, including eye pain and vision problems. She failed a brain exam testing her ability to follow her doctor’s fingers with her eyes. Those and other neurological effects of COVID stuck with her after the infection.
“Light still hurts my eyes to this day,” she said. “I can’t remember words a lot. I forget what I’m doing. I lose things. And I normally have a really good memory,” she continued. The memory problems were so bad, Sarah said she recently got into her car and forgot which side of the road — the right side or the left side — she was supposed to drive on. She just drew a blank. “Something I’ve been doing since I was 14 years old, I just looked at it and was like, ‘What?’” Sarah said. She continued, “And that’s the piece we don’t know as much about. So that really freaked me out. I’m hoping in the next few months I get my cognitive power back … It’s been coming back little by little, but I can just feel in my brain that something is not there yet.”
Sarah is not her real name. To protect their health privacy, the patients interviewed for this story are identified by fictitious first names.
Asked if he had seen COVID patients with lingering health effects, Winona Health Emergency Department and Urgent Care Physician Ian Young responded, “To be honest in the last couple weeks I hadn’t. Now, I’m seeing these students saying that they’re having problems with concentration, memory issues — they just haven’t felt themselves since.” Three college students used almost the exact same phrase to describe their lingering symptoms, Young said. “After their diseases resolved, their brains have been ‘very foggy,’” he explained, “to the point where they’re struggling to study and keep up with their classes.”
COVID ‘long haulers’
Sarah and these students aren’t alone. The American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology reports COVID patients across the U.S. are suffering confusion, memory problems, and other cognitive issues.
Four of seven Winona area residents interviewed for this series had some sort of lingering health problem after recovering from COVID-19. After recovering from COVID, Wyatt’s wife, Cathryn, reported intermittent lung irritation and an increase in the heart palpitations she had experienced before COVID. Angela, a 44-year-old Winonan, said she continued experiencing heart palpitations weeks after her initial illness.
Patients like this are nicknamed COVID-19 “long haulers,” and scientists have documented various lingering health effects. “Months after infection with SARS-CoV-2, some people are still battling crushing fatigue, lung damage and other symptoms of ‘long COVID,’” reads the subhead of a recent article in the scientific journal Nature. It cites studies finding heart problems and immune malfunction, as well. “Some people go on and have heart damage or they have other organ damage that is quite concerning,” Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said. “And sometimes they are people who were healthy prior to getting COVID.” According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report, a survey of U.S. COVID patients found “35 percent had not returned to their usual state of health when interviewed two to three weeks after testing. Among persons aged 18-34 years with no chronic medical conditions, one in five had not returned to their usual state of health.” The researchers concluded, “COVID-19 can result in prolonged illness, even among young adults without underlying chronic medical conditions.” Scientists are still trying to understand the full extent of these long-term health effects and the reasons for them.
MDH: Preventing deaths is not the only goal
While COVID-19 infections are multiplying in Minnesota and Wisconsin and the virus has been far more deadly than the flu both nationally and locally, there has been one piece of major good news over the summer and early fall. The rate of deaths-per-case has improved since the pandemic began.
MDH leaders have credited medical professionals getting better at managing COVID — thanks to both new research and doctors gaining more experience with the disease — for that improvement. “It’s a serious illness that needs to be taken seriously, but it’s also manageable,” Young said.
Some citizens have taken that good news as evidence that perhaps the severity of the virus was overblown or that measures to stop its spread are not so important. Slowing the virus’ spread is not just about preventing deaths, MDH leaders stressed.
“This has only been with us for a few months, but we are seeing very concerning, severe health consequences among people who have had COVID, even potentially milder cases of COVID, who come down with significant complications later on,” MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “So we are focused on trying to reduce the number of cases in order to try to reduce long-term health damage, in addition to [reducing] hospitalizations and mortalities.”
On social media, one local reader suggested COVID statistics should list patients who do not die as “survived” rather than “recovered.” Some damage — like scars on the lungs — may be permanent. Sarah’s doctors told her other viruses can cause serious health problems that stick around for a long time, but eventually go away. Cathryn wondered aloud: Would her own lingering symptoms fade? “I just hope they’re aren’t long-term issues for us,” she said.