Science Says Sunday – Long-Haul COVID-19

For months now, we have heard of COVID-19 cases that persist past the usual time course of COVID-19. People have reported loss of taste and smell for months, continued fatigue, joint pain, among other symptoms. One of my favorite writers, Ed Yong of The Atlantic, wrote about individuals experiencing long-haul symptoms after COVID-19 diagnosis, back in August 2020. His piece starts by detailing the experience of Ms. Lauren Nichols:

When we spoke on day 150, she was on her fifth month of gastrointestinal problems and severe morning nausea. She still has extreme fatigue, bulging veins, excessive bruising, an erratic heartbeat, short-term memory loss, gynecological problems, sensitivity to light and sounds, and brain fog.

Ed Yong, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/08/long-haulers-covid-19-recognition-support-groups-symptoms/615382/

A number of groups of individuals who have had COVID-19 and continue to suffer post-infection syndrome, communicate via social media discussing and detailing their respective cases. Several articles have also captured the growing number of reports of long-haul COVID-19, including a piece in STAT and another in Science. A third piece caught my eye: One written by a physician, Dr. Pooja Yeramilli. She details her own experience with COVID-19 and the continuation of symptoms afterwards, but also strikingly, her own uncertainty about labeling herself a ‘long-hauler’.

Much like with COVID-19 infection, there appears to be an element of shame associated with having persistent symptoms. However, in some cases, shame is not the only reason for keeping silent about these symptoms. In fact, in some cases, people are more than willing to share their experiences, but feel that they are not being heard or taken seriously when they share their experiences with their primary care doctors, family, friends, or anyone who will listen.

On December 3, 2020, the NIAID held a two day meeting to discuss what is currently known about Long-Haul COVID-19. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control have also provided information about Long-Haul COVID-19 on their website, titled “Long-Term Effects of COVID-19.

Much remains to be understood about COVID-19 long-term effects. For example, we don’t currently know:

  • Who is affected?
  • How are they affected?
  • How many people have long-term effects after COVID-19?
  • Are there risk factors associated with having long-term effects after COVID-19?

Luckily, some have begun to pay closer attention to this course of events, such that places like my university have established clinics to follow and treat individuals with persistent symptoms after having COVID-19. The clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is called the “Post COVID Treatment Program” and aims to help patients who have had COVID-19 receive proper follow-up care during their recovery process.

There is much to learn about this long-term experience that individuals who had COVID-19 experience. For now, one thing is remains true: It is very important that if you haven’t yet had COVID-19, that you take the virus seriously. Many focus on the percentages reported by viral social media posts indicating that COVID-19 and infection generally with sars-cov-2 isn’t a big deal.

The reality is that 1 out of 1000 people in the US have now died due to COVID-19.

But as discussed above, death isn’t the only outcome. So are long-term effects after hospitalization due to COVID-19, or even having had COVID-19 without hospitalization. So, it’s important to take this virus seriously and not think too lightly about the consequences of becoming exposed, infected, passing it along to others, and ultimately – if lucky – recovering from it.

For the time being, remember the importance of timespacepeopleplace (credit to Dr. Bill Miller of The Ohio State University):

And most importantly, don’t forget to continue to:

Wash your hands

Wear your mask

Watch your distance

Avoid indoor spaces

Like you, I can’t wait to get my COVID-19 vaccine, but until we do, taking this virus seriously and doing everything we know to work, is super important!

For more information visit, cdc.gov, and watch this webcast hosted by NIAID on the long-term effects of COVID-19.

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