Ryan Connelly Holmes
Ryan Connelly Holmes
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With hundreds of thousands of Americans contracting COVID everyday, health officials worry that may mean more people will end up suffering from so-called “long COVID," the mysterious ailment that can affect the body and the mind for months or longer after an initial infection. William Brangham looks at the latest research on the disorder, beginning with the perspective from a long-COVID survivor.
With hundreds of thousands of Americans contracting COVID every day, health officials worry many more people could end up suffering from so-called long COVID, the mysterious ailment that can affect the body and the mind for months, sometimes longer, after an initial infection.
William Brangham has a look at the latest research on the disorder, beginning with a perspective from a long COVID survivor and advocate.
Judy, one of the largest grassroots support groups for people suffering with long-COVID is called Survivor Corps. It has roughly 200,000 members.
Diana Berrent founded the group after her own bout with long-COVID, and she shared with us the harsh reality for those in her community.
Diana Berrent, Founder, Survivor Corps:
Our members are going through hell. Just surviving COVID doesn't mean recovery from COVID. And they are experiencing things as dramatic as Parkinsonian-like tremors, and feelings of inner vibrations that are causing them to not be able to sleep, extreme neuropathic pain that mimics advanced diabetes.
We are getting suicide threats daily. People are losing hope.
I'm overwhelmed with fear about the sheer number of people who have been affected by COVID. And the more we realize that it is also a neurological disease, it really should put the fear of God into everybody.
My biggest fear, that is, in 10 years, we see a group of 30-year-olds coming — being diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases, and we are not tracking them. We have no registry. And we have no road to therapeutics or treatments.
My 11-year-old lost one of his front adult teeth, nine months after COVID, an average, mild case of kid COVID. Mild. There is no mild case of COVID. One of his front adult teeth fell out, unprompted, with no blood loss, from vascular damage to COVID.
Even if you have already had COVID and you have recovered, even if you have had COVID and been boosted, you are still at risk of getting it again.
Our members are suffering. They need help. They need treatments. They need therapeutics. And we need to make sure that science is moving at warp speed to treat these people.
There are researchers trying to zero in on this problem.
In fact, a new study just came out that offers several factors that might predict who might end up developing long COVID.
Dr. Jason Goldman is an infectious disease expert at Swedish Health Services in Seattle and a lead author of that study.
Dr. Goldman, it's very, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."
We just heard from Diana Berrent expressing this concern about how difficult this condition is.
And so, if someone is out there listening to this and thinking that they might have symptoms of long COVID, can you tell us a little bit about the symptoms that you saw and that you have studied in your work?
Dr. Jason Goldman, Swedish Health Services:
Thank you, William.
We're seeing a whole host of symptoms in patients after they have COVID, and some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, sometimes muscle or joint pains, or other aches, and also respiratory symptoms, cough, shortness of breath.
These are some of the most common, but there are also other symptoms like depression and anxiety, that patients are suffering from following a diagnosis of COVID.
And that's got to be complicated too, because those symptoms seem to overlap with so many different conditions that could afflict people.
Dr. Jason Goldman:
This syndrome of long COVID is complex. It affects nearly all organ systems. And there's also an overlay of psychosocial factors and really the collective trauma we have been experiencing. So it's very hard to tease the biology out with such a complicated syndrome, but that's what we're intending to do.
So your study identified four possible characteristics that might predict whether or not someone develops long COVID.
Can you just explain briefly what those were, those four items were?
The four factors that we studied that were measured at the time of acute COVID diagnosis that later predict the development of long COVID were, one, the president of autoantibodies. These are the proteins that the body makes against self that are pathogenic and cause diseases like lupus.
The second was the president of SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID, in the bloodstream at the time of acute diagnosis. The next one was another virus called Epstein-Barr virus, which is the common cause of mono. And the last one was type 2 diabetes.
Of those four factors, do they provide some insight into treatment of this?
I mean, some of those things seem like things you might be able to predict or treat or address. Do they offer a pathway forward for addressing, for treating this condition?
That's a really great question, William.
We're very hopeful that our work will be a foundation for developing treatments. The one that I'm most excited about is the finding that the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the bloodstream predicts long COVID.
This has implications for treating with antivirals. Now, we're not quite there yet, because the data doesn't support that treating with antivirals prevents long COVID.
But that's a sort of a next step. And we're in some ways getting some of this data, but it's going to be coming slowly.
We know that this — that long COVID can present in people in many, many different ways, mild cases or more severe cases.
Does your research indicate which of those four categories might put someone into the more severe vs. the mild category?
Well, it's already known that more severe initial forms of COVID at the time of acute diagnosis also translates to more long COVID.
So, for instance, someone who spends a couple of weeks on a ventilator, that person is going to have tissue damage in the lung from the ventilator and just that long period of inactivity. So, we know that certain forms of long COVID are going to be associated with severity.
And I would assume, then, that vaccination status also makes a difference, that being vaccinated automatically will reduce your symptoms if you do you get infected and do have a breakthrough case, thus offering you more protection from long COVID?
Is that a fair statement?
Well, the jury's still out on that one, William, because there's been some conflicting results in the scientific literature on this point.
One study found that vaccination did reduce the incidence of long COVID. Another study found that there was really no differences.
And we know that some people, even with mild or asymptomatic initial infections, can get long COVID. So a lot of the vaccine breakthrough cases are more mild, but we just don't know quite yet if — how that vaccination status is going to impact on long COVID.
All right, Dr. Jason Goldman at Swedish Health Services, thank you very much for being here.
Thank you so much.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Courtney Norris is a deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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