The public health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been profound—and it isn’t over yet. Some patients diagnosed with COVID-19 experience physical and cognitive symptoms, some for the first time, many months after they were first infected, a condition commonly referred to as “Long COVID.” Symptoms range from mild to severe, with some people unable to work or being repeatedly hospitalized. While COVID-19 vaccines were developed at record speed, doctors are finding solutions for “long-haulers” to be a little more complicated. “We are still being humbled by COVID,” says Daniel B. Fagbuyi, M.D., a former Obama administration biodefense and public health appointee and an ER physician. “We don’t know everything yet. We’re still learning.”
In December 2020, Congress provided $1.15 billion in funding over four years for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research these prolonged symptoms; and in February, the NIH announced a major initiative to study what the scientific community officially calls Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC). Help can’t arrive fast enough: “About one third of people who get COVID have these lingering -symptoms,” says Lauren Powell, an Atlanta-based, board-certified family medicine physician. Here’s what you need to know if you or someone you love may be suffering from PASC.
Powell emphasizes that maintaining good health is the best way to lessen chances of serious complications from the virus. “Overall, our pre-existing, comorbid conditions are not only putting [Black people] at greater risk for getting COVID, but also putting us at greater risk for having this prolonged COVID syndrome,” she explains.
People with mild cases of COVID-19 usually recover within one to two weeks. Patients aren’t considered long-haulers until after they’ve experienced symptoms continuously for three months or longer. “Acute COVID-19 is how we refer to COVID symptoms that last for up to four weeks,” notes Powell. “Ongoing, symptomatic COVID is the technical term for symptoms that last between four to 12 weeks. But if you’re suffering with symptoms that go beyond 12 weeks, then you’re a long-hauler. You have what we call PASC.”
Despite no longer testing positive for COVID-19, patients with PASC can experience a wide range of physical and mental symptoms, including headaches, body aches, extreme fatigue and depression. “You can have brain fog, where you’re not able to think clearly,” explains Fagbuyi. “Others have tachycardia, or palpitations, [where] the heart feels like it’s racing or beating really fast.” More serious heart and lung symptoms can also linger, though these are less common than fatigue. “Shortness of breath is a big symptom, along w ith chest tightness or chest pain, and then coughing,” Powell adds. Patients may also have extended periods of insomnia and loss of taste and smell.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of PASC, Fagbuyi recommends seeking out a medical center or clinic that supports long-haul COVID patients. “There are also many academic centers doing research that will follow the patients and make sure that they’re doing okay,” he says. The best thing you can do to advocate for yourself is to follow up with your physician. “Keep in close communication with your doctor,” says Powell. “We want to make sure things are getting better.” If you’re still feeling badly, it’s critical that you’re seen and evaluated.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of ESSENCE