Gahan, a clinical psychologist in Shrewsbury, United Kingdom, hasn’t been able to return to work.
The disease causes what she calls “storms,” disabling periods when she feels shortness of breath, numbness in her hands and feet and her heart rate shoots up from simple tasks. Even taking a shower is possible only during an occasional respite in symptoms.
“In May and June, I could barely talk because I was so ill,” she said.
Before contracting the disease in early April, the mother of two ran three times a week and had a regular yoga routine.
“I can only walk as far as the corner,” she said. “In terms of running, I can’t imagine when that will happen, if ever.”
She is one of thousands around the world for whom Covid-19 has turned into a chronic condition. Gahan and other Covid-19 “long haulers” feel they aren’t yet getting recognition for an illness that has disabled them for months, with no end in sight.
“I’m a clinical psychologist, and this is not anxiety,” she said. “If doctors just say ‘We don’t know,’ it’s better than saying Covid symptoms only last two weeks.”
Many hospitalized for Covid-19 at risk to become ‘long haulers’
Researchers from the Academic Respiratory Unit of the North Bristol NHS Trust in the UK looked at 110 Covid-19 patients, whose illnesses required hospital stays for a median of five days between March 30 and June 3.
Twelve weeks after patients were released from the hospital, 74% of them reported symptoms, including breathlessness and excessive fatigue.
Despite these symptoms, however, 104 of the 110 patients in the study had normal basic blood test results, with just 12% showing an abnormal chest X-ray and 10% showing restrictive lung function through spirometry tests.
The British Medical Journal released new guidance for health providers in August on how to treat long-haul Covid-19 patients, estimating that up to 10% of all people who have tested positive could develop a prolonged illness. The guidance includes specific blood tests to perform, possibly referring patients to pulmonary rehabilitation and having them use pulse oximetry at home to measure oxygen saturation in the blood.
Results like these fly in the face of a narrative that took hold early in the pandemic, in which many medical professionals believed that the average Covid-19 patient would be sick for a couple weeks, clear the virus and be fine afterward.
That turns out not to be the case for everyone. The BMJ guidance cited “weak or absent antibody response, relapse or reinfection, inflammatory and other immune reactions, deconditioning, and mental factors such as post-traumatic stress” as contributing to longer-term symptoms. It acknowledged that similar parallels had occurred in patients with SARS and MERS.
“The classic case we all…