COVID-19 ‘long haulers’ still struggle with lingering symptoms

ROCK HILL, S.C. — The Journal of the American Medical Association states that about 10 percent of people who’ve had COVID, become what are known as “long haulers.” They suffer long-term symptoms.

However, infectious disease specialist Dr. Arash Poursina has treated hundreds of COVID patients at Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill. He said, in his experience, 10 percent is far too low.

“Probably more than half of the great majority of patients who recover from COVID will have some lingering symptoms that will go on for months, or possibly even years afterwards,” Poursina said.

Ernest Rodriguez, 65, knows that struggle well. He and his wife Antoinette still have their Christmas tree up at their Rock Hill home. They usually don’t decorate a tree because they celebrate the holiday away from home. Last year, they never left the house and the tree brings them joy.

Ernest Rodriguez wasn’t typical for his age. He worked out and was a champion competitive weightlifter, even into his late 50s.

“I was sick. Really, really sick,” he said. “Before I was actually training five days a week. I’d do a spin class, I’d do a yoga class. I mean I was really having a good time working out, and then I got sick.”

Last March, coming home from a trip to Florida, he spiked a 106 fever, went to the emergency room, and didn’t come out of the hospital for 20 days. Sixteen of them on a ventilator, fighting to live.

“I took him to the hospital, and that was the last I saw him for three weeks,” said Antoinette Rodriguez.

She was in the hospital sick for three days with COVID as well. Her husband never even knew she was there. When he finally came home, Channel 9 interviewed him on zoom the next day. He’d lost 40 pounds, and more much more than that.

“It’s just way devastating to come home like a skeleton, and all the muscle in my body came off,” he said.

Now 10 months later, the weight’s back but his energy isn’t. Ernest only has 70 percent lung capacity, can’t do anything he used to and gets tired quickly. He’s still seeing specialists, and both Ernest and Antoinette wore double masks during our interview. They don’t go out, and our Channel 9 crew were the first people to set foot inside their home in a year.

“I don’t want to take a chance of getting it again because it really, really devastated me,” Ernest Rodriguez said.

A few miles away, Deanne Regier sits at home grading papers. She shouldn’t be home at this time of day, but COVID had other ideas. On Dec. 9, she left the Rock Hill school where she teaches feeling sick, she couldn’t breathe and went to the emergency room. It wouldn’t be the last time.

“It felt like a mack truck hit me. Two weeks later, I was back in the emergency room, unable to breathe, and I was never able to gain strength,” Regier said.

COVID sapped her strength and stamina. She used to be active, exercise and on the go all day. More than two months later, she’s still struggling.

“Before COVID, I was able to do 12 hours a day. I could teach all day, go to the gym for one to two hours, go help my parents and head home. Twelve to 14 hours a day, no problem. Now I can do two to four hours of something,” she said.

She’s supposed to teach six classes a day in person. She often only makes one or two then goes home and takes a nap. She said as bad as the fatigue is, the brain fog is frustrating too. Her students notice she’s forgetful.

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“Brain fog, it’s like you have to think about thinking. I’m one of those teachers that kids fear, and they do work for me, and now it’s the students are like ‘Miss. Regier, are you OK,’” she said.

For both Regier and Rodriguez, fighting COVID for a few weeks was merely the first battle. Neither expected that life wouldn’t be back to normal after being sick.

Poursina said doctors know this about the impact COVID makes on the body.

“It affects the brain, it affects the heart, it affects the lungs of course. It affects the organs. It affects the blood vessels,” he said.

Doctors said common long haul symptoms are headache, fatigue, muscle pain and inability to concentrate.

More severe symptoms can be caused by an auto immune response to the virus. That includes organ damage, which can lead to stroke, heart attack and blood pressure problems. Poursina believes many lingering health impacts are caused by inflammation, that’s slow to reduce and the body’s own response to the virus can kick off those auto immune problems.

Poursina has even seen these problems in young people. That’s one reason he believes people should keep wearing a mask and social distancing even if they have had COVID, and even after they’ve been vaccinated. He said so-called long haulers shouldn’t ignore long-term symptoms. They need to keep seeing a doctor.

For Regier, who’s 50, life is now about setting small, daily goals.

“My goal is to walk around my neighborhood. We’re talking walk, and it’s a slow walk,” she said.

Rodriguez is also doing his best to be positive. He’s hopeful his weakness and loss of vigor is only for a short season of life.

“All these symptoms that I never had, I got them and now I have to deal with them,” he said.

Poursina said the medical field is only beginning to understand the long-term effects of the virus. His message to anyone still not feeling like themselves after having COVID is not to go through it alone.