The vaccine is here. Time to celebrate, right? Well, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we’ve gotten better at treating COVID-19 patients and keeping them alive, which is no small feat. But among the millions who have contracted the virus and recovered, it’s not necessarily back to life as normal. Here’s a look at what we do and don’t know about long-term COVID patients, aka “long haulers,” whose symptoms and ailments extend beyond their hospital stays.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Reporter
what we know
1. Hormonal Hardships
A number of long haulers are experiencing sexual health symptoms such as testicular pain, urinary problems and menstrual changes, lending credence to the theory that low hormone levels are contributing to the virus’ staying power — and that high estrogen may play a protective role, which could explain why men are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than women.
2. Pulmonary Problems
The virus directly inflames lung tissues, making air sacs less elastic and more difficult to expand, which makes breathing a challenge. Lung scarring has been seen in past coronavirus pandemics, particularly in patients infected with SARS, and some research suggests that as many as half of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients could sustain lung damage.
3. Coronary Catastrophes
Even without evidence of respiratory distress, heart inflammation can occur — with a recent study showing that a third of college athletes with mild COVID-19 cases exhibited pericarditis, or swelling of the tissue surrounding the heart, and many long haulers see their heart rates spike even with simple movements like standing up or doing household chores.
4. Breaking the Brain Barrier
A layer of specialized cells protects the brain from blood, a barrier that also serves to keep out dangerous blood-borne infections. But COVID-19 appears able to cut past those defenses to directly damage brain cells, leading to a host of neurological issues — from headaches to anxiety, fatigue and “brain fog” — that may be difficult for doctors to diagnose for decades to come.
5. Children Too
Despite the fact that they suffer less intense symptoms and lower death rates, kids can and do transmit the virus. And although experts must weigh the steep costs of keeping them out of school, it’s important to note that children are at risk and do experience symptoms, from the more mild, like nosebleeds, to those seen in the adult population. The lack of public response or consideration of children has led frustrated parents to form online support groups, including this one.
Each year, the Moguls in the Making business-plan pitch competition offers Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students an opportunity to learn and practice vital skills. Five students from Alabama A&M University won the second annual competition, which took place virtually this month, with their proposed solution to the lack of access to quality food and nutrition education in Detroit. The event gives 50 students — grouped into teams of five from 10 HBCUs — an opportunity to develop and present business plans aimed at solving key issues in the context of today’s economic and social climate. The competition is presented by Ally Financial Inc., the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and entertainer and entrepreneur Big Sean’s foundation, the Sean Anderson Foundation. Winners receive scholarships and internship opportunities with Ally.
If a mother’s smoking, drinking and, at least theoretically, listening to Mozart can affect a child’s development in the womb, it stands to reason that a deadly virus with neurological and pathological symptoms could as well. We already know that pregnant women with COVID-19 face a greater risk of delivering prematurely, which can lead to multiple medical issues for the baby. But the coming years will show whether virus babies present with other symptoms, such as learning disorders or stunted growth, an issue that’s already prevalent in India.
2. The Taste Test
Nearly every COVID-19 patient experiences some loss of smell, with a small percentage reporting a total inability to both smell and taste. The average loss appears to last eight days, but a few people may lose those senses for good, as scientists discover that the virus is capable of permanently compromising olfactory neurons.
3. Immunity Irregularities
Scientists have argued for months about what level of vaccine adoption is necessary to create herd immunity, with experts forecasting from as low as 40 percent to as high as 80 percent. But another question is whether humans can stay immune for long, if at all. Some recent research suggests that immunity can last as long as 6 to 8 months, but there are anecdotal reports that it fades much faster.
4. Can Vaccines Really Be Developed This Fast?
When accounting for discovery research, preclinical trials and clinical development, the typical vaccine timeline is upward of 10 years. The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was developed in less than a year, with a number of others arriving just as quickly or soon after. Renowned immunologist Anthony Fauci recently spoke to OZY’s co-founder on The Carlos Watson Show (the episode will air in January), telling Watson that while these vaccines were developed rapidly, they were done so without compromising quality or integrity. An unprecedented amount of resources were directed at solving the COVID-19 crisis, and the process was helped by previous coronavirus-related vaccine research. “I’m entirely confident it’s a very effective vaccine,” Fauci said.
If you’re like us, you’ve gotten used to working from the comfort of home wrapped in cozy blankets, and might dread the idea of putting on “real clothes.” With Outerknown’s Blanket Shirt, your problem is solved: It’s rugged and sustainable, and we promise it’s the coziest shirt ever made. Don’t let its stylishness fool you. The Blanket Shirt can also stand up to the natural elements and function as an extra layer on chilly nights.
Ahmad Ayyad, a 40-year-old resident of Washington, D.C., boxed and lifted weights regularly, played pickup basketball several times a week and participated in endurance obstacle Spartan races. But after catching COVID-19, his condition deteriorated rapidly and he ended up in the hospital, where he lost more than 60 pounds and was placed in an induced coma for 25 days. Complications included a blood clot in his arm plus lung and heart damage, but Ayyad is slowly recovering.
COVID-19 victims who lost their senses of smell and taste have started a new trend on the video platform in which they devour a series of disgusting, scorching and generally inedible foods. Homemade videos show roommates downing everything from hot sauce to pickle juice. New Jersey creator Russell Donnelly went viral with more than 17 million views of him chomping on raw onion, Gerber baby food and wasabi Oreos, among other distasteful things, swallowing each one and then describing his reaction with his catchphrase: “nothing.” And for those desperate to recover their sense of taste, there’s a burnt-orange-with-sugar remedy making the TikTok rounds.
3. Bringing COVID to Second Grade
Texan Jake Mahler, 7, began showing symptoms in mid-April. His mom, an aerospace engineer, remained calm since reports suggested that children mostly avoided the worst of the virus. But four and a half months later, Mahler was still symptomatic, from intermittent fevers to coughing, insomnia and a splotchy skin condition that came and went for no apparent reason.
4. Constant Exhaustion
Before Jade Gray-Christie contracted COVID-19 in March, she had a busy life — working with disadvantaged young people and going to the gym three times a week. But after waking up feeling hot and cold, coughing nonstop and suffering from her asthma, Gray-Christie knew something was wrong … even if paramedics refused to take her to the hospital because the 32-year-old was “young” and “strong enough to recover.” In the months since, the Black Londoner has fluctuated between feeling OK and needing to sleep for 16 hours at a stretch.
A gift from us to you. As we count down to the end of the year, we’re bringing you some “Odd Couple” matchups of our favorite episodes from The Carlos Watson Show so you can decide which conversation you find the most interesting. Will it be the new AOC, Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman, or the new Ava DuVernay, writer and director Isabel Sandoval? Watch our favorite episodes featuring rising stars here, and let us know your pick by following The Carlos Watson Show on Instagram and voting in our Stories.
The University of Georgia researcher is coordinating more than 60,000 people in 100-plus countries as part of the world’s largest study on the psychological impacts of COVID-19. The findings will be particularly significant considering that when the last global pandemic hit 100 years ago, it was only viewed through a biological lens since psychology was just emerging as a field of study.
In the absence of the U.S. government doing any tracking of COVID-19 in schools, the Brown University professor and head of the national COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, discovered that her data became the key source guiding public policy on how to handle the pandemic response in education. One takeaway? The best-selling parenting author suggests, perhaps controversially, that schools should be the first to open and the last to close in any shutdown plans.
3. Gina Assaf
She contracted COVID-19 on March 19. By May, she was one of five co-runners of Patient Led Research, a group of researcher-patients publishing the first in-depth analysis of those exhibiting prolonged symptoms. With most resources and attention focused on preventing deaths, long haulers have gone woefully under-studied, but scientists are finally starting to turn their eyes to the body of work being compiled by Assaf and her colleagues.
His company, Strand Therapeutics, is working to make it easier and cheaper to distribute the vaccine to poorer nations with smaller purse strings. Without equal access to vaccines, herd immunity on a global scale will be almost impossible to achieve, and right now it could take two to three years for vaccines to be made available everywhere.
Other mRNA companies such as Moderna have leaped ahead in the vaccine race, but German-based CureVac — led by its chief scientist, Fotin-Mleczek — is running late-phase trials for a vaccine that could trigger an immune response with a fraction of the dosage required by Moderna, meaning they could make millions more doses. Plus CureVac has said that it’s created a vaccine that can be kept at much warmer temperatures (5 degrees Celsius, compared to minus 20 degrees for Moderna’s vaccine) for at least three months. That would greatly help combat the challenge of getting the vaccine to remote nations across the globe.
Now that vaccines are being approved, some nations are turning toward addressing the symptoms many survivors still have. In England, for example, the National Health Service has established at least 69 specialist clinics for patients suffering long-term effects of COVID-19.
2. Better Prepared?
A key reason scientists were able to develop vaccines in record time and get approvals for some antivirals like Remdesivir so quickly, is because they weren’t starting from scratch but were using vaccines/ideas/research from previous viral challenges, including past coronaviruses. That in turn means the sophisticated vaccines developed this time could make it that much easier — and faster — for scientists to mount a defense against the next epidemic.
While appearing on The Carlos Watson Show to discuss COVID-19, Bill Gates suggested that the future threat of a similar crippling pandemic will force governments to create a global task force to study these threats in quiet times — and quickly band together to squash new surges before they escalate. He predicted that a pandemic like this year’s could strike at least once a decade if not properly, and promptly, addressed.
Ultimately, public health depends not just on medicine but also on behavior. From China to South Korea, Japan to Vietnam, the SARS outbreak earlier in the century made people across East and Southeast Asia embrace mask-wearing as a protective tool not only in moments of national crisis but even if they were just heading out while nursing a common cold. Those habits have proved critical amid the current pandemic. Will the West learn from 2020 the way the East did from 2002? So far, the evidence is mixed. But there’s still time to change.
5. A Return to Privacy?
One reason South Korea shouldn’t be a role model? Its post-pandemic history of playing Big Brother. As the vaccine takes hold and immunity sets in, will leaders return to a peacetime treatment of its citizens … or will invasive apps and tracking software created to address the crisis last long past their intended shelf lives? The concern is real: Just consider how the United States used 9/11 to spy on its own citizens years after the terrorist attack. And some interventions may not be so easy to roll back, particularly in more authoritarian states.
Globally, people aren’t likely to forget who shone in some of the world’s darkest moments … and who didn’t. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has a history of dealing with national tragedy, consoled and shepherded New Zealanders through a crisis that has the small island COVID-free, at least for now. If there is any doubt whether that enthusiasm is shared domestically, consider that her Labour Party scored historic wins in October. In fact, female leaders scored well overall, with Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen showing poise under pressure — plus results. Merkel, a scientist by training, clearly and frequently communicated the science needed to educate the German people. Taiwan, meanwhile, used its digital health infrastructure to track and contain the spread.
7. Political Ramifications
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the virus originated in China, which spread misinformation while trying to downplay its seriousness, the United States somehow managed to suffer what will likely be the largest fall in reputation … given President Donald Trump’s inability to grapple with the growing crisis while leading the world in deaths. Still, today, America has failed to contain the virus in any meaningful way despite its wealth. Other mismanagers include Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister who was briefly praised for his anti-lockdown stances and now has been forced into implementing a five-week shutdown. Sweden boldly pursued an anti-lockdown approach for months before finally starting to restrict the size of public gatherings this fall. Time will tell if these nations, and other bumbling ones, can regain the trust of the global community.