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THOMPSON: COVID-19 'long haulers' exemplify pandemic uncertainties

November 30, 2020 - 12:00 PM

OPINION


They call themselves “long haulers”...people who contracted COVID-19 and months later continue to suffer. Increasingly, scientists - who refer to the “long haulers” in a more scientific way...those suffering Post-Acute COVID Syndrome - suspect that the end isn’t in sight for many.

Nine months ago, we thought this was a disease that threatened people age 65 and older...and those with preexisting conditions. It was, we thought, for everyone else a tough but temporary and certainly recoverable respiratory illness.

We were largely wrong...victims of a virus that we knew too little about. Today, younger people - 20 to 45 years old - who had mild cases of COVID-19 are showing up in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms with mysterious and debilitating symptoms...many are worse than when they first tested positive.

But “long-haulers” are found across every age group, among males and females, young...and old. What they have in common is that they usually test negative...theoretically they have recovered from COVID-19.

Viruses often cause after-effects in people...but not to the extent doctors are finding with “long-haulers.” People worldwide who contracted COVID-19 in March and April now complain of dizziness, foggy thinking and memory issues, and heavy limbs. They are often further frustrated when medical professionals all too often put off their issues as more psychological than physical...a post stress or anxiety issue.

The truth is research scientists and doctors are dealing with a mystery. They don’t know exactly what is causing issues for “long-haulers.” There are theories...like overactive immune systems that after fighting mild COVID-19 cases actually turn on the patient’s body...wreaking havoc in major organs...but as yet there’s no clear proof. Another theory is that a small but negligible amount of the virus remains in the body...even though current tests don’t detect it.

It is difficult, too, to know the extent of Post-Acute COVID Syndrome...researchers fear the number could be frightening...people who might need treatment for years. The Journal of the American Medical Association last month estimated ten percent of those infected with COVID-19 could likely suffer from Post-Acute COVID Syndrome. 

Actual tests have detected more than 13 million infected people in America, but public health experts say the actual number of infected could be eight times that number...more than 100 million people. So, potentially with somewhere between 1.3 million and 10 million “long-haulers,” the United States faces billions of dollars in health care demands on an already strained system. Thus far, more than 268,000 have died in the U.S....19 percent of the world’s pandemic deaths...despite having just 4 percent of the world’s population.

Canada has done a better job than the U.S. in managing the pandemic, detecting about 375,000 cases...with just over 12,000 deaths. With Canada having roughly 2.9 percent of the COVID-19 cases as the U.S., there will likely be far less “long-haulers” here. That said, research shows a similar proportion of “long-haulers” in Canada...10 percent or about 3,750...and if you’re in that group...you’re suffering. Of course, Canada’s health care system is much better suited than the U.S. to deal with the crises of both COVID-19 and “long-haulers.”

If this pandemic were a baseball game...we’re in the third or fourth inning, according to researchers. But with “long-haulers” or Post-Acute COVID Syndrome...it’s the top of the first. There’s more that we don’t know than we know about either the disease or syndrome.

Among the complicating issues, “long-haulers” don’t often have the same symptoms as when they had COVID-19. Some who had so-called mild cases of COVID-19...with almost no symptoms...end up months later with a dry cough, incredible fatigue and body aches, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, sleep difficulty, headaches and brain fog.

Another complicating issue is the number of people - citizens and politicians - who simply don’t believe the COVID-19 pandemic is a thing. Incredibly, millions - particularly in America - consider the entire pandemic an elaborate conspiracy - a hoax - that is no different than seasonal influenza. I’m guessing most who had COVID-19 and “long-haulers” would like to bitch-slap these ignorant folks.

Discussions and articles about Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome or the pandemic aren’t fear-mongering. Indeed, we need to know as much as possible about this virus and its aftermath. It is among us...and no one is going to be the better for it if they contract it.

We all need to show our compassion and caring for others...especially in these challenging times. Researchers are working overtime to find answers that will at some point limit suffering...not just vaccines but knowledge...treatments. Meanwhile, our job as citizens is to continue to limit our exposure to others, wash our hands and wear a mask.

It is after all...a long haul.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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