FARGO — Some have a lingering cough, chest pain and crushing fatigue long after being diagnosed with COVID-19, while others have frequent headaches and “brain fog.”
Gastrointestinal problems plague some, causing them to lose drastic amounts of weight.
A few report having daily fevers ever since they became ill.
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That's the case for Amy Watson, 47, and Annette Kalt, 56, who have not been hospitalized but have both been sick with the novel coronavirus since mid-March.
“I call it the ‘Rona coaster' because you never know, the symptoms come and go,” said Kalt, who works as a registered nurse in Everett, Wash.
Watson, a preschool teacher in Portland, Ore., formed a private Facebook group called Long Haul Covid Fighters for people who’ve been ill for more than 80 days. It has approximately 5,000 members from all over the world and is considered full.
Watson said she started the private groups after going to other COVID social media sites, where some tried to minimize the issue.
“I don’t want people to have to know from personal experience what this is like. It's horrible. It's hell,” Watson said.
Dr. Avish Nagpal, an infectious disease physician at Sanford Health in Fargo, said most people who will suffer long-term COVID effects are those who've been hospitalized in intensive care and spent time on a ventilator.
He said while he’s not aware of patients locally experiencing symptoms like the long-haulers are, that’s not to say it’s not happening.
“We all have our own individuality, and we all have our own medical conditions,” Nagpal said.
The Forum came up empty in a search for local people with lasting COVID symptoms who were willing to share their stories, but a callout on Watson’s Facebook site drew responses from people in at least a dozen states and Canada.
She said 5% to 10% of COVID patients have recoveries that take longer than six weeks.
A lack of such cases locally could be due to our smaller population base and that it’s still early in the pandemic.
Watson said the medical community is catching on to this development, however.
Part of those conversations involve educating physicians about those long-hauler symptoms and using smartphone apps to track them nationwide.
Nurse calls her illness ‘life-altering’
Annette Kalt has no underlying health conditions, and before getting sick, exercised at least five times a week.
Traveling, hiking, skiing, riding horse and cutting down trees on her property were frequent activities.
She cares for hospice patients at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, about two hours from her home on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle.
She takes a ferry for part of that commute, and it was during one of those rides on March 17 that she didn’t feel quite right.
Arriving at work, her temperature was normal, but the very next day, she came down with what felt like a terrible chest cold and low-grade fever.
The virus, for which she tested positive a week later, hit her hard as the days went on, with chills, fatigue, and inflammation in her lungs.
Like Watson, she also has had daily fevers ever since.
Kalt has seen several doctors, a few of whom told her to just give it "another two weeks."
“They are maddening and patronizing,” she said.
Now, she’s visiting with her primary physician via video, but mostly has nursed herself at home over the weeks and months.
At one point, she went into a clinic for a chest X-ray to be certain she didn’t have a secondary infection, but the image was clear.
Regardless, her lungs feel rigid and thick and are highly sensitive, she said, to any amount of smoke, pollen, wind and sharp smells like vinegar or cleanser.
“It’s terrible. It hurts so bad,” she said.
The fatigue can be mild to debilitating. If she overexerts one day, she’s on the couch the next.
Her doctor is exploring several possibilities as to why effects of the virus linger.
Kalt’s hormones are out of whack, with one level indicating she’s in menopause; another showing she’s ovulating.
She has a dairy allergy, which also could be a factor, she said.
Kalt has tried various supportive treatments, including vitamin supplements and Chinese herbs and hopes to be well enough to go back to work in the near future.
She fears she won’t be able to hike at all this summer, or ever be able to do the activities she’s done in the past because of COVID.
“It’s life-altering,” she said, her voice choking with emotion.
Preschool teacher advocates for others
Amy Watson has asthma but was otherwise healthy and active before getting sick March 15, she said.
She didn’t get a COVID-19 test until weeks later because her case was considered mild to moderate at the time. Tests were also in short supply in many parts of the country.
She thinks she got the virus from a student who’d been out sick but returned to her classroom just days before everything was shut down as the pandemic took hold.
It seemed like just a bad cold with fever at first, she said.
At home, her partner and her daughter also became ill but were fully better within a week.
Watson wasn’t as fortunate. She became even sicker, with a dry cough and higher fever.
During a recent video interview with The Forum, Watson took her temperature, which showed 101 degrees Fahrenheit. She said it was the 114th straight day she’d had a fever.
While the cough went away after about five weeks, she developed new symptoms, including chest pain, odd rashes and a burning sensation beneath the surface of her skin.
“Very weird, like nothing I've ever experienced before,” she said.
Doctors are considering whether she has a type of post-viral syndrome.
“I essentially have a chronic illness from this mystery virus that no one seems to know anything about,” Watson said.
She’s not well enough to work but doesn’t have to think about that for the moment.
She was recently furloughed until January 2021, with her preschool staying closed at least until then.
Watson is putting some of her attention toward petitioning government health organizations to recognize a longer COVID recovery window.
That could help people who are still symptomatic receive additional family medical leave from their employers.
Disability benefits might come into play for some long-haul fighters as well.
Watson reminds fellow sufferers they’re not alone and their symptoms are not just “in their head.”
“If you find that your doctor isn’t listening to you, find another doctor,” she said.
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