Health

Long COVID patients enduring symptoms, looking for answers

Over the last year, about 15% of adults infected with COVID-19 reported symptoms lasting longer than three months.

Long COVID patients enduring symptoms, looking for answers
Danielle Mortell.
Scripps News
SMS

In the time before COVID-19, Danielle Mortell was biking, hiking, and snowboarding her way through life.

"I was healthy. I was very active. I had climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal. I had summited Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.," Mortell said.

The 33-year-old was living in Colorado and working full-time at Google when she tested positive for COVID-19 in May 2020.

"It first started with just insane fatigue," Mortell tells Scripps News. "I was taking three, four-hour long naps during work days. And then a few days after that heavy fatigue, I remember standing up and not being able to catch my breath."

Mortell ended up having to quit her job, and for the last 3 1/2 years has endured a long list of lingering symptoms. She's one of millions of Americans dealing with long COVID. Over the last year about 15% of adults infected with the virus reported symptoms lasting longer than three months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.

Emma is a 21-year-old college student living in Boulder, Colorado. She asked Scripps News to only use her first name. Doctors told her symptoms would last about six months. It's been two years.

"Even now, I can't take an in-person academic class because I get headaches and my brain will start hurting so easily," Emma says. "My memory, I can't take a test because, one, it's too fatiguing. It ruins my day. And then I can't remember enough to actually do well on a test."

The University of Colorado campus near Denver runs one of only three post-COVID clinics in the state.

Dr. Sarah Jolley is an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, and director of the UCHealth Post-COVID clinic. She says the flood of long COVID patients hasn't slowed down since the pandemic began.

Overall COVID and flu cases slowing, JN.1 variant spreading quickly
Overall COVID and flu cases slowing, JN.1 variant spreading quickly

Overall COVID and flu cases slowing, JN.1 variant spreading quickly

The highest activity in regular and ICU beds is in the Midwest and Northeast. Deaths are up 10% from the week before.

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"We still have between 50 and 100 referrals coming in a week," Dr. Jolley says. "But with that number of patients coming in, we have more referrals than doctors that can see them. So we certainly need more clinical resources put towards caring for patients with long COVID."

Another challenge, Dr. Jolley says, is that there's no single treatment for long COVID. Every patient and their symptoms can be very different.

"There is a large proportion of patients that have long-term symptoms that don't necessarily return to baseline," Dr. Jolley said. "So they may have some improvement in their symptoms, but they're still far from where they were before they got sick."

Jolley and the team at UCHealth are enrolling hundreds of patients in major studies and clinical trials, hoping to solve some of long COVID's mysteries.

"Understanding the risk factor, and why in particular long COVID seems to impact people who were previously healthy and high-functioning, we still don't have that answer," says Dr. Jolley.

These days, Mortell is documenting her recovery on YouTube, while road tripping with her husband Mike and their pets to places like Alaska. On the advice of functional medical practitioners, she has tried cold water immersion therapy in chilly Alaskan lakes to help with nervous system function.

Many days are still tough. On hikes, her heart rate can quickly spike.

"My heart rate of 130 beats per minute is due to a condition called dysautonomia," she says in one video. "It basically means your autonomic nervous system, which controls things like breathing, heartbeat and digestion, is dysfunctional in some ways."

One key to recovery, Mortell says, is pacing herself.

"You can usually have more success with getting to a better place with your symptoms," she says. "I've had moments where I'm doing pretty good and moments where I push it too hard and then I'm down for the count for a while."

Mortell says she's optimistic for her future, but worries too many are too quick to forget the dangers of COVID.

"I think it's hard if people don't know someone with long COVID to really get it, and understand how it can disable you for years, or even life," Mortell says."The world definitely seems to be moving on. And those of us that are here are kind of stuck."