COVID long-haulers: The lingering sickness with no expiration date

SPOKANE, Wash. — We know COVID-19 impacts people in different ways.

Some may not even feel like they are infected, while others spend weeks in the hospital or possibly even die from the virus.

Then there are COVID “long-haulers” — those who are supposedly recovered, but still suffering months after their infection.

It is a silent suffering. You think you have recovered from the worst of COVID-19, just to find out your battle with this virus is only getting started.

“We may be dealing with a group of patients who has more long-term effects, not just three months, but a year or five years or indefinite effects,” said Dr. Aaron Bunnell of UW Medicine.

Jasmine Kemp, a previously healthy 29-year-old, is now a COVID-19 long-hauler. She was an active weight-lifter who used to work out daily.

“I can’t even make blended drinks at my job without running out of breath,” Kemp said.

She is not alone. Thousands of people who contract COVID-19 are finding out there is no expiration date on the virus.

“And even if it’s only five percent of the infections that have long-term effects, it’s a massive public health issue,” said Bunnell.

And these long-term effects blindside everyday life. Just ask Julia Lockwood, the Deer Park Elementary principal now taking time off because of her lingering battle with COVID-19.

“I had to get a lot of tests done and discovered I have damage to my lungs,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood was diagnosed with COVID-19 back in March, then again in November. Now, her lungs look much more like the lungs of someone with asthma.

“I’m not asthmatic, I’ve never had breathing problems and I had to go to the ER… couldn’t breathe and then I had heavy sternum pain, chest pain and upper G-I pain,” she said.

Lockwood is on a steroid inhaler, but is struggling to find effective treatment for her ongoing symptoms. She has rashes flaring up constantly and her glands flare up, too, if she does not get enough sleep.

“Your body goes through like a gas-lighting where everything becomes inflamed, so if I have one infection everywhere, even a cut on my body, my whole body becomes inflamed,” she said.

So, what is the answer? How does someone like Lockwood create a roadmap to recovery?

“My goal to start with patients is to shoot for 15 or 20 minutes everyday where they’re huffing and puffing, and I don’t care if they split them into chunks of five minutes here, five minutes there,” said Dr. Benjamin Arthurs with MultiCare.

Arthurs helps patients with breathing problems every day and says long-term lung damage from viral infections is not anything new. Patients who used to have H1N1 or pneumonia sometimes battle for years or even decades before getting somewhat close to their old self.

Lockwood used to run marathons. Now, short walks and limited exercise are the key to her long-term recovery.

“I think giving them the hope that they can get better with hard work and exercise and medical therapies, I think we have to carry that optimism that some of this is reversible,” said Arthurs.

That optimism is what Lockwood, Kemp and other long-haulers are holding onto, especially with such an uncertain road to recovery.

“That’s the scary part, because we don’t know if it’s ever going to end,” said Kemp.

“I don’t know when I’ll be able to exercise again or take a long walk, but first thing’s first, I want the symptoms just to not interfere with my life,” said Lockwood.

There are also other types of COVID long-haulers: those who have recovered from the virus, but are dealing with a different type of silent suffering.

Ryan Kropfl has not been able to taste or smell anything in seven weeks. He has tried everything from taking a bite of a raw onion and evening downing a shot of alcohol, but still has no taste.

Aside of losing taste and smell, Kropfl’s battle with the virus was one of the lighter cases — just some chills, a fever and a sore throat for a few days.

But he and many others may have to wait months before getting their senses back.

“Extremely frustrating… as well as the fact that this has gone on for over a month now,” Kropfl said.

Three people, three different cases of coronavirus and three separate paths to recovery.

“For folks out there that think, ‘Well, this is just the flu’ or like the flu, it’s not. It’s just not,” Lockwood said.

For now, we try to lean back on hope. Hope for our neighbors to recover from this cruel virus and hope for our country to get back to normal one day soon.

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