COVID ‘long haulers’ face lingering symptoms

DOVER — Kristin Wheatley spent four days in the hospital and was home from work for the entirety of October after being infected with COVID-19 for three weeks in late September to mid-October.

A month later, Ms. Wheatley is still feeling the lingering effects of the virus.

“I never would have imagined I would be 38 years old and gasping for air after walking up a flight of steps a month after diagnosis,” said the Dover native. “There’s some depression that sets in with this as well, from the isolation of the recovery to the lingering effects.”

Ms. Wheatley is a part of a growing group who are known as “long haulers” or someone suffering from “long COVID.”

Dr. Bill Chasanov, infectious disease physician at Beebe Healthcare, described a long hauler as “a person who has recovered from the COVID-19 infection but still has lingering symptoms.”

The Center for Disease Control issued public guidance earlier this month on Nov. 13 regarding long haulers. Its guidance states “we are learning that many organs besides the lungs are affected by COVID-19 and there are many ways the infection can affect someone’s health.”

“While most persons with COVID-19 recover and return to normal health, some patients can have symptoms that can last for weeks or even months after recovery from acute illness,” the guidance continues. “Even people who are not hospitalized and who have mild illness can experience persistent or late symptoms.”

Delaware Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay said the DPH is aware of Delawareans who are have longer-term complications of COVID.

“I think that’s a real stark reminder for everyone that this isn’t just like a flu or many other viruses that come and go” Dr. Rattay said. “We really don’t know the long-term consequences and it’s really something to be concerned about that there might be long-term effects on individuals. That’s another really important reason why we all need to do whatever we can to prevent ourselves from getting ill.”

The symptoms

Dr. Chasanov of Beebe said while he cannot speak for the entire state, Beebe has seen cases on long haulers within its practice.

“They do exist and we are aware of people with ‘long hauler’ symptoms,” Dr. Chasanov said. “Being a long hauler is not common but is also not rare.”

The most common symptoms that are being reported, according to Dr. Chasanov, are fatigue, shortness of breath, decreased ability to do the same level of activity as performed before infection, memory issues such as forgetfulness, headaches, loss of smell and taste, and sometimes a fast heart rate. These symptoms can last for weeks to months, he said.

Ms. Wheatley described her daily symptoms as dry skin and lips, extreme aches in her muscles and joints, fatigue, hair loss and headaches. She added she occasionally feels shortness of breath.

The headaches, Ms. Wheatley said, are a consistent dull ache between the temples. She never experienced these headaches before her COVID-19 diagnosis. Her muscle and joint pains are persistent, she said, even at rest.

“If you haven’t been through this,” she said. “It’s difficult to understand the severity of what has happened.”

The CDC’s guidance lists fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain and chest pain as the most common long hauler symptoms. It goes on to list other symptoms which have been reported such as difficulty with thinking and concentration (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”), depression, muscle pain, headaches, intermittent fever and fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as “heart palpitations”).

There are also several more serious symptoms, according to the CDC, which are less common but have been reported. These affect different organ symptoms in the body and include inflammation of the heart muscle (cardiovascular system), lung function abnormalities (respiratory system), acute kidney injury (renal symptoms) and rash or hair loss (dermatologic system).

The neurological system can experience issues as well such as smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration and memory problems, the CDC says. Symptoms which affect the psychiatric system post-COVID are depression, anxiety and changes in mood.

Still more to discover

With COVID-19 only about a year-old, there isn’t as much information available for the long-term effects compared to other diseases.

According to the CDC, multi-year studies are underway to further investigate long haulers.

“The long-term significance of these effects is not yet known,” the CDC said. “CDC will continue active investigation and provide updates as new data emerge, which can inform COVID-19 clinical care as well as the public health response to COVID-19.”

What is worrisome to Dr. Rattay of DPH, is some studies have shown a younger demographic are the ones feeling effects of lingering symptoms. This is the group which has recorded the most positive cases in Delaware, with 11,059 of the state’s 34,670 positive cases coming from the 18-34-years-old age group and 7,823 more positives from the 35-49-years-old demographic.

“It’s young adults that seem pretty susceptible to becoming long-haulers,” Dr. Rattay said. “That’s a group that often feels like this virus isn’t going to impact them but that’s certainly an age group suffering from long-term complications.”

Dr. Chasanov said as of now there is unfortunately not a lot of information on the risk factors that make people more vulnerable to be a long hauler.

“I have talked to some people that have no risk factors for severe COVID-19 disease and have recovered but yet have ongoing long hauler symptoms for weeks to months,” Dr. Chasanov said. “As COVID-19 is still less than a year old, we may identify some additional information about long haulers’ immune systems as time moves forward.”

If an individual thinks they are experiencing long hauler symptoms, they should visit a doctor for more information, says Dr. Chasanov.

“It is important for patients to know that if they have these “long-hauler” symptoms that they are evaluated by their provider to ensure that there are not additional health issues occurring,” Dr. Chasanov said. “While these symptoms may be caused by COVID-19, it is important to ensure that these symptoms are not caused by complications of COVID-19 or from other medical conditions. If a patient has completely improved from COVID-19 and then develops the symptoms above or others, they should be evaluated by their provider to ensure that other medical conditions are not missed.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.