Anxiety, fatigue, headaches: COVID long haul symptoms linger for some Coloradans

A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2, was identified as...
A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2, was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).(Source: CDC)
Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 11:54 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - As of the end of March 2021, more than 128 million people worldwide have contracted the coronavirus. In the United States alone, more than 30 million Americans have been infected. A majority of those people get better, but some are still recovering even months after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

According to CBS News, there’s an estimated 2 million “long-haulers” -- survivors who, months after being infected with the coronavirus, are still experiencing debilitating and often crippling symptoms.

Lanette Shipley is one of those long-haulers. She said she learned there was an outbreak at her husband’s job in mid-October.

“Ron was down,” Shipley said about her husband. “He got it in his lungs. I got it in my throat and then, of course, the body aches, and in my sinuses. I mean, it was so bad.”

Shipley said it took about 30 days before any of the symptoms started to subside. But even after that, she’s still not fully recovered.

“I went to the gym twice, and I could only do the bike for 15 minutes, and I could only do the elliptical for 10,” she said. “Shaky, so shaky, and you just feel like you’re going to pass out, and the cognitive confusion and worry … horrible brain fog, very forgetful, overwhelming to where you just want to cry.”

“It’s not letting go,” Shipley continued. “There’s a lot of supplement they tell you to take, and I’ve tried absolutely everything to build my immune system, but it’s just … it’s kicking my butt, and I don’t know what life is going to be like from now on.”

Dr. Robert Lam, a practicing emergency physician for UCHealth, is researching the long-term effects of COVID-19. During the rise of the pandemic, he studied patients who were hospitalized at Memorial Central and Memorial North in Colorado Springs.

“We started to notice that about a third of the patients that we were interviewing were not fully recovering in a way that we thought that they would, that we would expect,” Lam said. “That group we have come to know now as patients that are having a long-haul experience recovering from COVID-19.”

During his research, Lam found some of the most common symptoms that continued to plague coronavirus survivors were brain fog, headaches, difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle aches and body pains.

Lam said most people who experience long-haul symptoms are people over 50 with at least two pre-existing conditions, but that’s not always the case.

Alexa Huesgen-Hobbs is 19 years old and is still dealing with lingering impacts after being diagnosed with COVID-19. She was attending college in Scotland in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. She was able to catch a flight back to the United States to get home to Colorado Springs but thinks she caught the virus during her travel.

“People weren’t even wearing masks at this point,” Huesgen-Hobbs said.

Once home, she followed CDC guidelines and quarantined for 2 weeks.

“I sat in my room for about a week, and I felt fine,” she explained. “Then I started to feel kind of bad, but I chalked it up to altitude sickness because I was coming from somewhere about sea level.”

Huesgen-Hobbs was nearing the end of her 14-day quarantine when she lost her sense of taste and smell -- a telltale sign of COVID-19. Her symptoms quickly got worse.

“I was just in bed, and any amount of movement felt like there was weights over my entire body,” she said. “My breath was really shallow and really hard. I just, for the life of me, I could not get a breath in. It felt like any breath that I was taking, someone was pushing down with equal force on my chest.”

It took about 2 weeks for her symptoms to start improving. Huesgen-Hobbs said her sense of taste and smell returned about a month later, but food was no longer appetizing.

“Everything I ate and everything I smelled had like a weird tinge of burnt Play-Doh,” she said. “I’ve only just gotten over it, and the first time I realized that I wasn’t tasting it anymore, that was incredible!”

Even though it’s been a year since Huesgen-Hobbs was diagnosed with the virus, she’s still experiencing its lingering impacts.

“Even now to this day, I can’t lay on my side because it crushes my lungs, and I can’t breathe,” she said. “It’s just exhausting, and it’s frustrating, and I want it to be over.”

Dr. Lam said there are a few theories about why certain people experience long-haul symptoms. In some cases, patients have organ damage that can contribute to the lingering symptoms. For people who don’t have significant organ damage, doctors think the long-term impacts might have to do with the spike protein on the coronavirus.

“The spike protein on that virus has the ability to actually invade multiple other organ systems,” Lam said. “So the fact that it affects so many organ systems is why we continue to have lingering symptoms in different systems in our body.”

COVID-19 isn’t the first virus that left people with lingering symptoms.

“The SARS virus actually had a number of patients that had a very similar long haul journey. So it’s also coronavirus just like COVID-19, but it mainly affected health care workers,” Lam said. “So we actually saw health care workers during that pandemic that had a long haul journey, so there is some precedence for why this is happening.”

Lam said there’s still a lot to learn about the long-term impacts of COVID-19.

“Some people are theorizing that it might be similar to what people experience with SARS and symptoms might go away in a year or two, but it’s really kind of too early to tell.”

Long-haul symptoms can vary from person to person, but most people continuing to deal with symptoms have a similar message for those still not convinced they need to take the pandemic seriously.

“You can’t judge somebody off of your experience of anything, whether it’s COVID, grief, whatever,” Shipley said. “Everybody’s situation is different. Everybody’s body is different. Everybody’s immune system is different. So if your symptoms were mild, get on your knees and praise God, but don’t criticize other people for what they’re going through, and don’t gamble with precautions. Just be grateful … This is not a joke.”

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