For Some Patients, COVID-19 Drags On, Even When They Test Negative
More than a year into the pandemic, scientists and doctors know a lot more about the novel coronavirus, but there are still many unanswered questions.
One topic ripe for more discovery are the persistent COVID symptoms many patients face months after testing positive. These people are sometimes called COVID long-haulers.
For Natalie Smith, 54, who lives in Hailey, COVID symptoms lasted many months after her initial infection in March of last year.
“It's been a long year,” she said.
Smith, a ski instructor at Sun Valley, an Uber driver and an artist, said there are a number of ways, through her jobs, that she could’ve gotten sick with COVID last March.
She didn’t have some of the more widely known symptoms at the time, like a cough or a fever, but she was very tired.
“Extreme fatigue to the point where I couldn't even take like four or five steps without wanting to collapse,” she said.
Weeks later, some of her symptoms still didn’t let up.
Dr. Louis Roser runs a clinic for people experiencing persistent COVID symptoms at Saint Alphonsus Health System in Boise.
The clinic opened last October after doctors noticed a need for patients who had been discharged from the hospital or were dealing with symptoms, but not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. It also emerged to serve patients who’d developed chronic conditions as a result of the virus.
Roser thinks of COVID patients in two categories. There are those in the acute phase of the illness — that’s when people can lose their taste or smell, have a bad cough and a fever. And for some people, it stops there. For others, about two weeks after, the illness transforms.
“Then you kind of switch into the post-viral, inflammatory phase of the illness,” he said. “And that’s when we start to see patients with the long-term symptoms.”
A frequent complaint of his patients, he said, is they feel like they can’t do daily tasks they used to do in the same way, whether because of “brain fogginess” or feeling out of breath from even minor exertions.
A few months after Smith tested positive, she’d get waves of more intense symptoms: Night sweats, trouble sleeping, a fever. They’d last a few days, disappear and then come back again.
Other issues like an increased heart rate, fatigue and dizziness were more consistent.
“The effect of that continuous sickness, that the body's trying to get rid of, is — I just felt really sad,” Smith said.
There are a number of patients who’ve felt similar, with their own laundry list of dreaded conditions that shape their new reality. A Facebook group for COVID Long-haulers in Idaho has about 350 members.
“If you have long-term symptoms,” Smith said, “it feels like you're sort of trapped in a dungeon.”
A year later, Smith is wrapping up a season of ski instructing she said, at one point, she wasn’t sure if she’d have. By now, most of her COVID ailments have gone away.
Most long-haulers Roser has seen in the clinic start to feel better after a few months. He said more research into long-haulers is desperately needed. Most COVID research thus far has focused on patients sick enough to be hospitalized. In the meantime, the Boise clinic will continue to monitor patients and direct them to the care they need.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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