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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Long-haul COVID-19 baffles health care professionals

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Nearly 20,000 Hoosiers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March 2020. If researchers from Penn State College of Medicine are correct, more than half of these people went on to develop long-haul COVID-19, meaning their symptoms lasted for at least a month after diagnosis. For many, these symptoms will eventually fade. For some, however, symptoms including brain fog and an altered sense of taste and smell will last months, even years, after diagnosis.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) isn’t sure if African Americans or other minority groups are more likely to develop long-haul COVID-19. John Brooks, chief medical officer at the CDC, said given the disproportionate rate of infection in African Americans, it’s likely they would be more susceptible to long-haul symptoms.

“We do believe that they are likely to be disproportionately impacted by these conditions as they are more likely to acquire COVID-19 and less likely to be able to access health care services,” Brooks said at a congressional hearing last year.

Access to care is critical and costly — even for those with insurance. Hannah Hudson, who is white, tested positive for COVID-19 in November 2020. Though her symptoms were fairly mild, she still has not recovered her sense of taste and smell and struggles with post-acute COVID-19 tachycardia (rapid heartbeat). She’s been to several specialists — a cardiologist and an ear, nose and throat doctor — who found nothing that could cause her symptoms.

While her symptoms have impacted her life — her tachycardia keeps her from a lot of physical activity, and she’s had to drastically change her diet — Hudson said she’s one of the lucky ones.

“A lot of people like to preach about the survival rate being really high, but no one wants to talk about the 98% of survivors and how awful their lives can be,” Hudson, 28, said. “I’m lucky, my sense and smell and taste changed, but some people can have really debilitating side effects for a long time. You have no idea the long-term effects that come from COVID, or if there’s a cure for it.”

According to Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, there’s no way to know what impact long-haul COVID-19 will have on public health in the years to come. Doctors have been aware of the virus’s impact on the lungs, heart and other organs, and recent studies have shown that children infected with COVID-19 have an increased risk of developing diabetes. One of the more troubling side effects of long-haul COVID-19, Caine said, is the neurological symptoms, namely “brain fog.”

“It makes it to where people can’t follow a conversation, or maybe they’re not able to watch a TV show for an hour,” Caine said. “There can be significant memory loss and disorientation. Some doctors say COVID-19 may cause more brain damage than Alzheimer’s disease, to give you an idea of how bad it can be.”

Caine is also concerned about chronic fatigue and weakness, which can lead to an inability to walk without assistance and loss of income if the person can no longer hold a job.

While questions remain about who gets long-haul COVID-19 and why, Caine suspects the virus may lie dormant in the body for some time, and could be triggered by a viral infection, for example, which may cause symptoms to flare up again. However, Caine said the only foolproof way to lower your risk of long-haul symptoms is to protect yourself from the virus. Omicron, the most recently discovered variant, is far more contagious than its predecessors. She emphasized cloth masks and face shields are no longer protective against the new strain, and urges Hoosiers to wear N95 or KN95 masks, which are more effective at containing respiratory particles.

Getting vaccinated and boosted, Caine said, is not just important to your individual health, but to the well-being of the overall community.

“We have to understand the significance of how deadly this disease is,” Caine said. “Omicron is way more contagious than delta, and though the symptoms may be milder, way more people are being infected. When you have hospitals filled with a large number of COVID patients, it means people having a heart attack or a stroke are going to have a difficult time finding an emergency room bed. We know that 90% of the people hospitalized for COVID are unvaccinated, and we also know that African Americans and Blacks are hospitalized at least three times their counterparts and are twice as likely to die from the COVID-19 as compared to their white counterparts.”

The CDC recommends people who got the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccination at least five months ago get a booster shot. Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are eligible for a booster shot two months after their vaccination. To schedule your vaccination or booster appointment, visit ourshot.in.gov.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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