For millions of people who contract the novel coronavirus, the recovery process lasts only a few days or a couple of weeks at most.
But the National Institutes of Health reported in February that, for “large numbers” of the more than 30.5 million Americans who have had COVID-19, the virus’ toll lasts much longer.
The NIH has named this condition Long COVID or Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 and has received funding to study it for four years.
The symptoms of Long COVID can vary widely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most commonly reported long-term symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain and chest pain, while other known symptoms include difficulty thinking and concentration, also known as brain fog, depression, muscle pain, headaches, intermittent fever and heart palpitations.
The Mayo Clinic, which reports that even those with a mild case of COVID-19 can have lingering symptoms, though those with underlying medical conditions are more likely to experience Long COVID, also reports that loss of smell or taste, rash, hair loss and memory and sleep problems may occur for those with Long COVID.
Experts are unsure how many people have Long COVID, but estimates usually put the number of Americans with this condition well into the thousands.
That includes several of the over 4,200 Monroe County residents who have contracted the virus, as they spoke with the Republic-Times about the lingering effects COVID-19 has had on them.
Kelly Rowold was not the only member of her family who has coped with Long COVID. Her son, 18-year-old Jacob Rowold, also has faced long-term symptoms from the virus after both individuals contracted it over the holidays.
Kelly said she and her son both had a fever for a few days, with cough, congestion and loss of taste and smell.
They also had “extreme fatigue” and “headaches that would not go away,” with the former symptom lasting months.
“The residual effects have been horrid,” said Kelly, a teacher in the Valmeyer School District. “The long-term effects for both of us have been extreme fatigue and brain fog. For me personally, it also affected my blood pressure to dangerous levels, as well as my adrenal and digestive systems being messed up and shot. I gained almost 15 pounds in two months post-COVID.”
Kelly said she had an illness shortly before contracting the virus that weakened her immune system, but her son, a multi-sport standout at Valmeyer High School, “is in top physical shape.”
“It hit him hard,” Kelly said of her son. “Jacob bounced back quicker but said he would never want this again. I feel the same way.”
The family regularly takes several vitamins to help ward off illness, and since Kelly got sick she has taken prescription antibiotics and cough medicine and turned to the chiropractor for help with her symptoms.
The Rowolds were never hospitalized with the virus, and the same is true for Julie Mecalo – though she did go to the hospital because she felt so bad.
The Waterloo resident tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 11 and remained ill for 26 days.
“Until last week, I continued to have right flank pain and dry mouth,” Mecalo, who also has dealt with hair loss and night sweats, told the paper near the end of March. “I still don’t feel back to normal.”
When Mecalo visited the hospital, blood work showed abnormal changes in her blood sugar and kidney and liver functions about a year after she last had those same tests done.
She said she has not gone to the doctor because she fears what problems a health care professional will find.
“I felt totally alone during the long illness,” Mecalo said. “I don’t see things changing in the future. The pandemic has been very stressful, and I have anxiety to the max.”
For another Waterloo resident, Judee Sliment, her experience with Long COVID has diverged from Mecalo’s.
She began feeling sick in early November and tested positive for the virus on the last day of that month.
“I never had a fever, but I had tremendous body aches, congestion, extreme fatigue and loss of taste and smell,” Sliment said. “The body aches went away within two weeks, but the congestion, fatigue and loss of taste and smell lasted until late February. I had very little energy or motivation. I also haven’t slept through the night since early November… Now, two flights of stairs totally winds me.”
Sliment, who has not sought medical treatment for her problems, said she was more susceptible to the virus because she has asthma.
“I’m incredibly thankful I was not hospitalized or on a respirator, but this virus really knocked me on my butt — for far longer than the normal flu,” she said.
A 56-year-old Columbia woman who asked not to be identified by name also said she has had serious long-term effects from the virus after having only a mild case.
The woman, who has a handful of underlying health conditions, tested positive for the virus in late October and had headaches and chills for about three days and fatigue for around a week.
“I felt I never got over the fatigue and also had what they called ‘brain fog,’ confusion, my joints ached, et cetera,” she said. “I tried going back to work cleaning houses, but, over a three-month period, I called off more than I worked because I just couldn’t finish a house without being completely exhausted. Before COVID, I could clean two in one day.”
She also gained 25 pounds over three months due to an inability to remain active.
The woman spoke with her doctor after about three months about her symptoms, and the doctor had blood work done. The tests showed she had a low red blood cell count, platelet count and vitamin B levels, along with her blood not clotting properly.
The doctors said they were seeing these problems with “long haulers,” and prescribed a regimen of vitamins and vitamin B injections.
Since then, she has begun to improve.
“I’ve been feeling so much better. My blood work is good also. It still takes a lot out of me to clean a house, but I’m really hoping I start to get my old energy back. I’ll just have to take it slowly,” the woman said.
Even those in health care are susceptible to Long COVID.
Lindsay Hallman, a health care worker from Waterloo, first contracted the virus around Thanksgiving. Her symptoms included low-grade fever, congestion, cough, chills, nausea, severe chest pain, loss of taste and smell and brain fog.
Those latter two problems have persisted.
“I still can’t smell anything. I have chest pain. And most days, when I wake up, I have brain fog,” Hallman said.
She has tried using incense to help her sense of smell return but to no avail. She also takes a daily regimen of vitamins and immunity gummies, along with one baby aspirin, to manage her symptoms.
While most of the symptoms these individuals experienced are fairly common with Long COVID, doctors are seeing other, rare ones.
For example, Gina Hefflinger of Valmeyer had COVID-19 in December, and in February she developed an issue in one eye that limited her vision.
After several doctor’s appointments that included trips to an urgent care, emergency room and eye specialist, Hefflinger was diagnosed with multiple evanescent white dot syndrome.
“It comes on after having had a virus,” Hefflinger explained. “The docs haven’t agreed or confirmed it’s an after effect of COVID, but one did say he’s seen it more in the last year — 10 times over his 20-year-career and five of them the last year.”
The issue is supposed to resolve itself, but it hasn’t in around six weeks, Hefflinger said.
She said the virus also “takes a toll” on your mental health, echoing Mecalo’s comments.
The impact the coronavirus has had on these Monroe County residents’ lives has been notable, but all of them said it has not changed their thinking about the pandemic – partly because they all said they were trying to stay safe before they got ill.
“Honestly, from being a nurse and working with COVID, you see a lot,” Hallman said. “I’m glad my symptoms weren’t as bad as others. The only long-term effect of my symptoms that really bothers me is my smell being gone. It’s aggravating. As far as the pandemic goes, I’m glad things are opening up and going back to somewhat normal. Of course, keep continuing to wear your mask or just stay home if you’re sick.”
Sliment said she was never “gravely ill’ but described her symptoms as “pretty awful” and “much more severe and lengthy in duration than the regular flu.”
“I was always careful, and tried to adhere to the guidelines recommended by the CDC,” she said. “I think it did send those messages home, though, and reminded me that I needed to truly be diligent with wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer and remaining socially distant.”
Likewise, Kelly said her family followed all the guidelines before and after contracting the virus.
“It is a Twilight Zone virus. It has no rhyme or reason,” she said. “When we were diagnosed and dealing with it at home, we had several friends and family that have lost loved ones and have been in the hospital over the virus. As a teacher at Valmeyer High School, I have seen what the effects the virus has also done to the mental health of kids and families as well.”
Kelly also said that, as soon as doctors clear her, she will pursue another treatment that experts have said appears to help those with Long COVID: getting vaccinated.
“As soon as (I can)… I will be in line at the Monroe County Fairgrounds for the vaccine,” she said.