As new and more contagious COVID variants drive another rise in infections, there will likely be an increase too in long COVID. Medical experts estimate that this puzzling syndrome with its constellation of symptoms could surface in up to 30 percent of people infected with the virus.
“Anyone who gets COVID is at risk for developing long COVID,” said Dr. John Baratta, founder and co-director of the UNC Covid Recovery Clinic.
A study released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in five people under 65 who had been infected with COVID experienced a health condition associated with long COVID. For people 65 and older, the incidence was one in four.
Long COVID can create new ailments or aggravate preexisting ones, such as arthritis or heart issues. Symptoms include severe fatigue, shortness of breath, “brain fog” and depression, among other things. It can be debilitating.
Joni White, a patient at the UNC clinic, recently told the News & Observer about what hit her weeks after she thought she had recovered from a COVID infection. “All of the sudden the brain fog and the fatigue, you know, the heaviness in the chest. I could not remember anything. I couldn’t add two plus two. It was just so many things,” she said.
White, a Hillsborough resident, said this week that she feels well now, but her recovery took over a year.
Despite such effects, the risk of long COVID – and it’s there even for the vaccinated and those who had mild or asymptomatic infections – is being largely ignored. Concerts, sporting events, restaurants and airplanes are packed and mask mandates are mostly gone.
“The pandemic mindset has ended for many North Carolinians,” Baratta said, “but for those with long COVID, the struggles of the pandemic continue.”
Vaccinations and precautions can’t stop infections completely, but they can reduce the number and severity of infections and the long COVID cases that can follow. Yet, only 55 percent of North Carolina’s population is fully vaccinated with a booster and vaccination rates have plateaued.
Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at UNC Health in Chapel Hill, said, “I think long COVID is not getting the attention it needs and the capacity we have to help people with this is limited. We need a really concise definition of what it is and what we can do to help people cope with things we don’t have a good treatment for.”
So far, that’s not happening. The National Institutes of Health will spend $1.15 billion over the next four years to study the causes and treatments of long COVID, but the results of those trials are years away.
Meanwhile, the government, insurers and employers are unclear about how to determine when long COVID qualifies as a disability, the state is not tracking long COVID cases and treatment clinics are not broadly available. “We really still need state or federal funding to expand long COVID care,” Baratta said.
The scarcity of long COVID treatment centers is clear in the range of people coming to the UNC clinic. It has treated patients from 77 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and 14 other states.
“People are really in desperate need of this care. Those with the resources to be able to travel can, but many are not able to do that,” Baratta said.
Naomi Bauer, a physical therapist who heads a clinic that treats long COVID patients at WakeMED in Raleigh, said getting financial help for the treatment and financial burdens of long COVID is an uneven process.
“We have had quite a number of patients who have had to either file for long- or short-term disability, or give up working altogether because their employers either can’t or are unwilling to make accommodations for them to return to work safely,” she said.
Kim Stoltz, a nurse and mother of three in Clayton, had a terrible case of COVID. She was on a ventilator and suffered lung damage. At WakeMED, she’s has recovered her ability to walk and breathe without oxygen. “I said I’m going to walk out of here without oxygen, and I did,” she said.
But Stoltz and her husband had to hire a lawyer to get her retroactive disability benefits and she said the $40 co-pay for clinic visits three times a week is hard to afford.
Bauer is hopeful that research will catch up with this ever morphing infection. “There’s so much money that has been designated to study it and find treatment and cures,” she said.
But until that medical advance comes, there needs to be more immediate assistance, medical and financial, for those who suffer debilitating effects from an encounter with this changing, but still dangerous and persistent virus.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com