For many survivors of COVID-19, the disease continues to take a toll after initial recovery.
Commonly known as “long-haul COVID,” the condition includes continued symptoms such as cough, joint and chest pain, fever, dizziness, loss of smell or taste, fast heart rate, fatigue and shortness of breath. Initial studies of the condition indicate that the virus can cause lasting tissue inflammation, which leads to the long-haul symptoms.
“We are still learning so much about COVID-19. There is 10 times more unknown than what is known,” said pulmonologist James Knight, MD.
Early research showed some positive results with decreased symptoms when patients with long-haul symptoms received the COVID-19 vaccine.
But besides supplemental oxygen and pulmonary rehabilitation, there isn’t much that can be done to speed recovery. (At the time of publication, the FDA was considering emergency use authorization of a promising oral antiviral medicine that may help some with COVID-19 avoid hospitalization.)
“It’s a roll of dice right now to determine who recovers and how much recovery will be gained. It’s scary,” Dr. Knight said. “Pulmonary rehabilitation can help, and we try to get all of our patients into that program after significant COVID-19 lung infections.”
Mike Dean, 37, spent 35 days in the hospital in July and August of 2021. Two months after he returned home, Dean said it felt like he’s at half-strength.
“I can do 100% of my day-to-day stuff. But with any physical exertion, it’s just not there. I tried to do a half-mile walk and I had to stop and take a break. Stairs are the worst.”
After missing three months of work, Dean started back part‑time and has begun pulmonary rehabilitation.
Matt Umberger and Mike Dean, both of Albany, spent time in the intensive care unit at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center with COVID-19.
A year after Umberger’s hospitalization, he still was not fully recovered.
“I can max it out on the cardio machine for 45 minutes, but if I’m carrying my canoe or kayak with my son when we go fishing, I have to sit down for five minutes,” Umberger said. “My muscles are still trying to recover. I’m pulling that oxygen in my lungs, and I’m just not able to keep up yet.”
Respiratory Therapist Joanne Rauenbuehler runs the pulmonary rehabilitation program at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. She said the most common symptoms are shortness of breath, needing supplemental oxygen, fatigue and cardiac arrythmias.
Some patients with long-haul symptoms need seven to eight months of rehabilitation, while others take less time.
“Many people don’t know where to start,” Rauenbuehler said.
At pulmonary rehabilitation, trained staff work with patients to address the issues that contribute to shortness of breath: how well the lungs move in and out, how well the heart pumps and how well muscles utilize oxygen.
“All of these can be improved with exercise,” she said.
Visit samhealth.org/Together to see Mike Dean and Matt Umberger talk about their fight to conquer COVID-19. Visit samhealth.org/GetTheVaccine to learn more about scheduling your COVID-19 vaccination or booster.