COVID ‘long-haulers’ pose significant public health implications

Coronavirus

AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — Doctors are calling it a silent epidemic with significant public health implications. COVID long-haulers are living with debilitating symptoms months after recovering from the virus.

Jill Spencer is one of those patients. She was the very first COVID patient treated at the Medical Center of Aurora in March 2020. The 51-year-old from Chicago was vacationing in Vail when she contracted COVID and developed respiratory failure.

“They saved my life, and it’s something you can never really thank people enough for,” Spencer said.

Ten months later, the emotion is still there, and so are some of the symptoms.

“There are just some terrible lingering effects that people have,” Spencer said.

Spencer has had quite the journey. When she was released from the hospital, she needed weeks of rehabilitation. She started losing her hair, and then she needed surgery to remove growths on her vocal cords that developed after she had the breathing tube. 

Spencer still has tightness in her chest and other issues that affect her every day like anxiety and an inability to sleep.

“When I go to bed, shut my eyes, that’s when all of the dreams and awareness of some of the things I think I dreamt when I was unconscious, all of those things come back,” she said. 

Spencer says she can only sleep for 60 to 90 minutes at a time.

“It’s a huge factor for me, and it’s one of those things we don’t talk about much,” she said.

She is fatigued, calling it COVID haze or COVID fog, and has not gone back to work.

“Things confuse me easily, you know, my memory is not as good as it was,” she said.

Spencer is not alone.

“It’s a silent epidemic. It’s under-recognized ,” said Dr. Phil Stahel, the chief medical officer at the Medical Center of Aurora.

Stahel says providers need to keep better track of these patients suffering from what he calls “Chronic COVID Syndrome.”

“Those who go home fall off our list, and there is significant chronic long-term suffering,” Stahel said.

Symptoms of CCS can include fatigue, headache, dizziness, continued loss of taste or smell, shortness of breath, chest pains, muscle pain joint pain and more. 

“Cognitive problems, inability to concentrate, truly an inability to resume their work,” Stahel added.

Stahel says there are serious public health implications, and the Medical Center of Aurora has started clinics to follow up with COVID long-haulers.

“For example, many patients have blood clots that go unrecognized, so we screen for those. Patients come back for lung function tests to see how much of the scarring around the lung still causes problems,” he said.

But as time goes on, he and Spencer hope more research will be done.

LNK: The medical journal article about Spencer’s case.

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