It’s only been what, 4 months since COVID 19 hit the US, and a disturbing trend is beginning to show. Some people are reporting that they don’t just recover and move on. Aftereffects of the virus are hanging on, and some of those effects may be long-term or permanent—it’s too soon to know.
For people in this audience, the stories coming out are all too familiar. People who aren’t recovering fully are not believed by their friends, families and sometimes even their doctors, who are learning about this right along with us. There are plenty of articles out there about the medical ramifications; I’m looking at the social ones.
Several of my friends have had the virus, and one had a relatively minor case, then tested negative and returned to work, grateful that her time of virus anxiety was over. Then, after a week of feeling good, her symptoms returned. She still tested negative—twice. She feels better again, but she’s still fatigued and the metallic taste in her mouth that started when she contracted the virus persists. She needs super-flavorful, aromatic food in order to feel like eating anything. It’s been about 6 weeks since her first positive test.
Since I learned of my friend’s experience, I began to doubt the “one and done” assumption people eagerly made about the virus—and why would they assume that? When you get the flu or a winter cold, it often hangs on for weeks and morphs into other things like bronchitis and pneumonia, and not just for “sickly” people. You can easily contract another cold or flu throughout the winter. Even if your antibodies protect you until the end of that cold and flu season, the next year it nails you again. Nobody thinks twice about this basic fact of viral behavior. Why would they assume COVID 19 works like chicken pox or polio? The common cold is a coronavirus; why wouldn’t you start by assuming the new virus behaves like other viruses in the same category? But people were anxious to believe that once they’d had this new plague, they were safe from it. If you survive it once, you win. It’s a seductive idea, but magical thinking is not medically sound and we don’t know enough yet to make those assumptions.
Now that the virus has been with us a few months, the stories are coming out about long recovery times. Some people are indeed bouncing back from it; lucky them. Others are experiencing long-term fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness in their extremities, arthritis-like pain, continued lack of smell and taste, and other odd symptoms.
For people who got sick enough to need ventilators, the lung damage from the virus may not be fully recoverable and they may have permanent loss of lung capacity. For many, it will be a long, slow process, if they do get better.
Mara Gay, a 33-year-old runner from New York City, was sent home from the hospital, but 27 days later, she still suffers from pneumonia and uses 2 inhalers to control it. She says, “I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know, this is no flu.”
I’m mystified by some people’s cavalier attitude toward the virus. With Ebola, we not only had a good system in place at the time for preventing a pandemic, but the public eagerly complied with restrictions, not that it got far enough for us to need many. I think that’s because it had a horror-movie symptom that nobody laughed off—bleeding from the eyes. A hemorrhagic fever is terrifying. Subsequent outbreaks like the one in the Congo now are aggressively contained. When cases were found in the US, no one asserted their right to freely expose themselves to it. The patients were locked away in multiple layers of quarantine and everyone willingly kept their distance from every place of potential exposure. No one complained about it being oppressive; when they went to the doctor with sniffles, they willingly put on the masks because no decent person would spread that.
As a person who has been on a ventilator and experienced the terror and helplessness of complete immobility and inability to talk, that’s more than enough to make me think this is worth protecting myself and the people I love at any cost. I nearly suffocated with bilateral pneumothorax (two collapsed lungs) and I still have a panic attack when my breathing is restricted. Wearing a mask makes me a little dizzy and short of breath after 20 minutes or so. I carry fast-acting medication for panic attacks and I dutifully tie on my mask. People with no such issues refusing to do it out of some false correlation between physical threat and government oppression—it’s completely beyond my comprehension. Yes, masks are uncomfortable and we hate wearing them. If we do it now, though, we hope we won’t have to for much longer.
We in this audience will be called upon to help the people who are newly initiated to our world. For at least a few months after infection, people are going to be like us—dealing with invisible disability. They’ll encounter skepticism from employers, friends and family, maybe even their doctors. We will be the friends they find comfort with. Some of them may be the same people who were skeptical of our issues and impatient with our inability to keep up. Get ready to forgive them and be the friend to them that they weren’t to you. We need to build a better world for when the pandemic is over. This seems like a good place to start.