Lauren Nichols has been sick with COVID-19 since March 10, shortly before Tom Hanks announced his diagnosis and the NBA temporarily canceled its season. She has lived through one month of hand tremors, three of fever, and four of night sweats. When we spoke on day 150, she was on her fifth month of gastrointestinal problems and severe morning nausea. She still has extreme fatigue, bulging veins, excessive bruising, an erratic heartbeat, short-term memory loss, gynecological problems, sensitivity to light and sounds, and brain fog. Even writing an email can be hard, she told me, “because the words I think I’m writing are not the words coming out.” She wakes up gasping for air twice a month. It still hurts to inhale.
Tens of thousands of people, collectively known as “long-haulers,” have similar stories. I first wrote about them in early June. Since then, I’ve received hundreds of messages from people who have been suffering for months—alone, unheard, and pummeled by unrelenting and unpredictable symptoms. “It’s like every day, you reach your hand into a bucket of symptoms, throw some on the table, and say, ‘This is you for today,’” says David Putrino, a neuroscientist and a rehabilitation specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital who has cared for many long-haulers.
Of the long-haulers Putrino has surveyed, most are women. Their average age is 44. Most were formerly fit and healthy. They look very different from the typical portrait of a COVID-19 patient—an elderly person with preexisting health problems. “It’s scary because in the states that are surging, we have all these young people going out thinking they’re invincible, and this could easily knock them out for months,” Putrino told me. And for some, months of illness could turn into years of disability.
Our understanding of COVID-19 has accreted around the idea that it kills a few and is “mild” for the rest. That caricature was sketched before the new coronavirus even had a name; instead of shifting in the light of fresh data, it calcified. It affected the questions scientists sought to ask, the stories journalists sought to tell, and the patients doctors sought to treat. It excluded long-haulers from help and answers. Nichols’s initial symptoms were so unlike the official description of COVID-19 that her first doctor told her she had acid reflux and refused to get her tested. “Even if you did have COVID-19, you’re 32, you’re healthy, and you’re not going to die,” she remembers him saying. (She has since tested positive.) […]
A few formal studies have hinted at the lingering damage that COVID-19 can inflict. In an Italian study, 87 percent of hospitalized patients still had symptoms after two months; a British study found similar trends. A German study that included many patients who recovered at home found that 78 percent had heart abnormalities after two or three months. A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a third of 270 nonhospitalized patients hadn’t returned to their usual state of health after two weeks. (For comparison, roughly 90 percent of people who get the flu recover within that time frame.)
These findings, though limited, are galling. They suggest that in the United States alone, which has more than 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, there are probably hundreds of thousands of long-haulers.