Topics: COVID-19, Coronavirus, Pandemic
I have friends who insist on seeing their friends during a pandemic, playing the equivalent of Russian Roulette (apropos, as they are capitalizing on our hubris), flaunting safety concerns and wearing masks “when they think about it” and selectively reading any materials I might send them. Well, I’ve attended at least one dry-by funeral and a Facebook live one. If you know me personally, I really don’t want to attend any others.
Athena Akrami’s neuroscience lab reopened last month without her. Life for the 38-year-old is a pale shadow of what it was before 17 March, the day she first experienced symptoms of the novel coronavirus. At University College London (UCL), Akrami’s students probe how the brain organizes memories to support learning, but at home, she struggles to think clearly and battles joint and muscle pain. “I used to go to the gym three times a week,” Akrami says. Now, “My physical activity is bed to couch, maybe couch to kitchen.”
Her early symptoms were textbook for COVID-19: a fever and cough, followed by shortness of breath, chest pain, and extreme fatigue. For weeks, she struggled to heal at home. But rather than ebb with time, Akrami’s symptoms waxed and waned without ever going away. She’s had just 3 weeks since March when her body temperature was normal.
“Everybody talks about a binary situation, you either get it mild and recover quickly, or you get really sick and wind up in the ICU,” says Akrami, who falls into neither category. Thousands echo her story in online COVID-19 support groups. Outpatient clinics for survivors are springing up, and some are already overburdened. Akrami has been waiting more than 4 weeks to be seen at one of them, despite a referral from her general practitioner.
The list of lingering maladies from COVID-19 is longer and more varied than most doctors could have imagined. Ongoing problems include fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain.
The likelihood of a patient developing persistent symptoms is hard to pin down because different studies track different outcomes and follow survivors for different lengths of time. One group in Italy found that 87% of a patient cohort hospitalized for acute COVID-19 was still struggling 2 months later. Data from the COVID Symptom Study, which uses an app into which millions of people in the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden have tapped their symptoms, suggest 10% to 15% of people—including some “mild” cases—don’t quickly recover. But with the crisis just months old, no one knows how far into the future symptoms will endure, and whether COVID-19 will prompt the onset of chronic diseases.
Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Science Magazine