Could you be a COVID long-hauler? Experts explain lingering effects of the virus

Special Report

SULLIVAN COUNTY, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — Vanessa Weil first became sick with COVID-19 around the Fourth of July last year.

“For three weeks, I just kind of had the normal flu symptoms, and I felt like I was getting better,” Weil recalled, “Then everything plummeted.”

The virus attacked Weil’s immune system and left her septic. Doctors gave her 72 hours to live. Luckily, she was able to recover, but COVID-19 had settled in her lungs and attacked her vocal chords.

“One of them was completely paralyzed and the other damaged,” Weil said, “I wasn’t really sure if I would ever speak again or sing again.”

Weil sings at church and was previously a youth minister, so the loss of her voice was devastating. When she got her vocals back, she said communicating was still difficult.

Local COVID long-hauler shares challenges of lingering symptoms:

Aside from the challenge of regaining her voice, Weil said a lot of other symptoms have lingered since her initial COVID-19 diagnosis nearly a year ago.

“I have what I call COVID days, where I temporarily lose my taste for certain food or the taste is odd,” Weil explained, “Occasional fatigue will hit, and it’s the COVID fatigue, it’s just different.”

Weil is not alone in her post-COVID struggles. Rather, she’s part of a group of people experiencing post-COVID syndrome, or long-haul syndrome.

“The people with COVID, the initial phase, (is) the four weeks that form an acute infection phase,” Regenstrief researcher Dr. Babar Khan said, “From 4-12 weeks it is a sub-acute phase. From six weeks to 12 months, you can have chronic symptoms and that’s essentially become the chronic COVID symptoms and those are the patients that we’re classifying as long-haulers for COVID.”

So, could you be a COVID long-hauler? The CDC lists the following as reported long COVID symptoms:

  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Headache
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • Dizziness on standing
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations)
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Fever
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities

Dr. Josh Cullison, a local physician in Greene County, said he’s seen many of these symptoms in local cases.

Dr. Cullison said the long-haul symptoms are more likely to show up in people with risk factors related to COVID complications.

“The people who are smokers, or have underlying lung or heart conditions,” Dr. Cullison said, “With that being said, I’ve seen perfectly healthy middle-aged men, I even saw some teenage athletes who were really struggling, you know, months after their diagnosis.”

Healthcare workers have been treating COVID-19 for more than a year now, but the virus is still new, as are its long-term effects. Therefore, the procedure for treating long-haulers is still evolving.

“What we are usually doing is going symptom-by-symptom and saying ‘hey, if you’re having problems with memory and attention, you can do some brain exercises. If you’re having debility, let’s have some physical therapy’,” Dr. Khan explained.

How is long COVID diagnosed? A Regenstrief researcher explains:

Dr. Cullison also pointed to new guidance from the CDC regarding treatment of long-haulers as a good resource for physicians.

When it comes to prevention, both Dr. Khan and Dr. Cullison said the COVID vaccine is the best way to avoid infection and lingering symptoms.

“The antibody response that you get with the vaccine is much higher than with natural immunity, so if you’re getting the vaccine, your antibody levels are going to be higher typically than if you were to get a quote unquote natural infection, natural immunity,” Dr. Cullison explained.

As a long-hauler herself, Weil has a message for others struggling with lingering symptoms.

“Just trust the process, put some faith in there, and just kind of hold on with white knuckles and you’ll get through it,” Weil said.

For more information on long COVID, you can visit the CDC’s website.

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