I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but here goes – for some people, COVID-19 is here for the long haul. Many are still having symptoms after 4, 5, or even 6 months since being infected with coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19. It’s terrible, not only because COVID-19 can cause death, but also because it’s a sneaky devil; you can be spreading it to your loved ones without knowing it because you don’t feel unwell and yet, there you are, sowing the seeds of disease. We need to continue protecting ourselves to avoid being infected by this unwelcome intruder that has overturned our lives.
At the time of this writing, there are over 6 million cases of COVID in the U.S. The number of deaths is almost 190,000 since the spring when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began to count them. In a CDC study reported at the end of July, 35% of people surveyed in a number of different states said they still had COVID symptoms 2-3 weeks after having their COVID tests; among the people surveyed were 18-34-year-olds with no underlying health conditions.
No one knows how many people are COVID long-haulers. What is becoming clearer is that there are enough people who are suffering many different COVID symptoms, over long periods of time, that they are setting up support groups online – BodyPolitic and Survivor Corps are just two of them. Why support groups? Many times, long-haulers are not believed by their health care providers or their families and friends. Many people with these symptoms never had COVID testing (either tests were not available to them or they were not hospitalized and rode out their COVID storm at home).
When these people go to see a health care provider all these months later because they are still feeling sick, they may have a COVID test and it is possibly negative because the acute phase of the disease is over and now they are into the chronic phase. If they have an antibody test to see if they were exposed to COVID and developed antibodies, it may be negative, as well, because we know that the antibodies may not hang around for long.
So, what are the symptoms of long-haul COVID? Many people are complaining of things like “brain fog” or inability to concentrate, extreme fatigue, and a sensation of being unable to breathe, even though the oxygen levels in their blood are normal. Other possible symptoms might include severe pain, fevers that continue for weeks to months, a nagging cough, hallucinations, delirium, and short-term memory loss. Sometimes the symptoms go away for a while and then return – the person thinks they are done with being sick and then BOOM! there it is again.
The obvious question is, how do you treat long-haul COVID? Well, that’s some more bad news. There is no standard treatment for it because no one really understands it. You may have heard about Remdesivir and steroids being effective, but those are drugs used in acute COVID, when you first get sick with symptoms and are most likely in a hospital. But, for the long-term symptoms we are talking about here, there is only symptomatic treatment – pain killers, for example – to help a person have some temporary relief (if pain is their issue).
You have heard people say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Well, there probably was never a time when those words were truer than they are now with this mysterious illness. We have a very good, science-based set of guidelines to help us PREVENT coronavirus spread – especially important now since we don’t have great treatments for the disease. You’ve heard them a thousand times over the past several months, but I’m going to repeat them one more time, just in case. By now most of you know that COVID is mostly spread by droplets and aerosols that spread in the air when we talk, cough, or sneeze. Droplets we can see with the naked eye, but aerosols not so much.
Even though it has become a highly politicized topic these days, wear a mask! Backed by science, we know we can all help each other by doing so. Long before COVID, people wore masks if there was a risk of airborne spread of serious illness like TB. People wear them in the operating room for hours at a time to prevent surgical infections. Yes, you’re right – when COVID initially started making people sick several months ago, the scientists were saying you didn’t need to wear a mask. At the time, the way coronavirus was spread, and the intensity of spread, were not known. What was known was that there was not enough supply in the US for healthcare workers and the entire population to have masks, so masks were reserved for essential workers who were in close contact with sick people. I know some folks fear that wearing a mask actually makes you sick – it doesn’t. If that were the case, surgeons and operating room nurses would be collapsing all over the country, and that just doesn’t happen.
According to researchers at the University of California at Davis, if two people are talking and only one is wearing a mask covering their nose and mouth, the risk of getting coronavirus for the person wearing the mask is 65% less. If everyone is wearing a mask, our protection is so much greater. If you feel like you must make a protest or political statement, put a protest phrase or the name of your favorite candidate on your mask. That way, you can still voice your opinion about the mask while you are protecting yourself and others!
Of course, stay six feet apart when you can – or even more. Some studies have shown that droplets and aerosols can travel as far as six feet when someone is speaking. However, when someone is singing, shouting, or playing a wind instrument they can travel even farther. Tricky singing with a mask on, but not impossible (I do it every week at my church). Continue with the incessant hand washing, as well. Coronavirus can hang around on surfaces from hours to days, but, as scientists study it more, this is not the most likely way to get COVID. But there are other diseases still kicking around out there that are less infectious with hand washing, so keep that good habit up.
The bottom line: prevent this horrible disease so you don’t have to deal with its devastation. Do everything you can to ensure that your long-haul run is not with COVID-19! We can get through this. We just need to be diligent and committed to not making it any worse than it already is. Take care!