COVID’s long-haul legacy leads to months of suffering for some Valley patients
‘Long-haulers’ dealing with effects of deadly virus months after initial diagnosis; Aspen, Glenwood Springs hospitals have plans to help those still afflicted with symptoms
For many residents of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, the year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to vaccines and decreasing case numbers.
However, for others with lingering symptoms of the coronavirus, that light is harder to see.
“Well, it feels like I’m living a nightmare,” said Clay Shiflet, an Aspen Middle School teacher and valley resident who’s been suffering the effects of COVID-19 for a year. “Literally, it’s hard to wrap your head around feeling like you have something that’s become chronic, essentially.”
Shiflet and others are known as “long-haulers,” and studies across the country are showing that more and more people afflicted with the virus report symptoms that just won’t go away. The number of long-haulers appears to vary, with a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association and a study by British scientists estimating that 10% of COVID-19 patients belong to that group, though others have suggested the number is much higher.
The number of long-haulers in Pitkin County is, so far, on the high side.
According to a survey conducted by Pitkin County Public Health, between 50% and 60% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 between March and August reported having at least one lingering symptom six months later, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist.
Of those cases, between 20% and 25% reported five or more lingering symptoms, between 10% and 15% reported 10 or more and one person had 33 symptoms related to the virus, he said.
“Some people are extremely affected by the long-term effects,” Vance said. “I’d probably say that was unexpected.”
It’s not yet clear why Pitkin County’s numbers are so much higher than other studies, which have shown that between 10% and 30% of those who tested positive for the virus reported lingering symptoms, he said.
“We’re trying to understand why that’s the case,” Vance said. “Is there something about where we live (that contributes to that number)? Ours is showing a much higher proportion.”
To be clear, Pitkin County’s study – which tracks patients six months after their positive test – has only identified 102 people with the lingering symptoms. That’s because the county experienced a relatively low number of positive case between March and August, which was before the winter surge, Vance said.
As of Friday, Pitkin County reported 2,115 total positive case of COVID-19 over the past year, according to local epidemiological data. But as the study progresses, Vance said he expects the total number of long-haulers to increase.
And it’s not just people who experienced particularly severe cases of COVID-19 who are reporting long-haul symptoms. Researchers in California recently found that one-third of the 1,407 people they looked at who tested positive for the virus reported lingering symptoms 60 days later despite no initial symptoms of the virus.
“When you look at the severity of cases, there’s not much of a difference,” Vance said. “The severity of the illness is not a predictor of long-term effects.”
“I was going to bed terrified”
Shiflet’s case was and is a particularly virulent one.
Before he contracted COVID-19 in March 2020, the 46-year-old physical education and wellness teacher considered himself an endurance athlete. He skinned up mountains in the winter, was a telemark skier and enjoyed running and mountain biking in the summer.
Initially, the father of twin 12-year-old boys experienced a low-grade fever, dizziness, general fatigue, pressure in his chest and loss of smell. A month after that, the fatigue increased and he began to feel a mysterious, pulsing pain in the lower right quadrant of his body, which he initially thought might be a hernia.
The exact source of the pain was never clear. What was clear, though, was a CT scan that found glass in his lungs, which may have led to him feeling breathlessness at night a month later, which caused nightmares, he said.
“I was basically going to bed terrified, hoping that I wasn’t going to die in my sleep or something,” Shiflet told The Aspen Times in September. “I mean, the panic that starts to set in is pretty significant.”
As April faded into May, the headache, sleeplessness and fatigue continued to plague him. Then came the chest pains and heart palpitations that made him think he was having a heart attack, which led to a visit to the emergency room in July. Again, doctors could never pinpoint a cause, he said.
“It feels like I’m having pain radiating down my arm like … throbbing numbness pain down your arm,” Shiflet said. “And that’s, like, as well as chest pain that comes on like an explosive, stabbing pain.”
By September, the symptoms showed no sign of ebbing.
“Still (I feel) fatigue, headache sleeplessness,” he told The Times at that point. “I’ve got tinnitus in my ears now. My arms are all blown up as far as … just swelling in my forearms. (I’ve got) breathless when I go and exercise (and) breathlessness at night when I sleep.”
Six months after that — in early March 2021 on the year anniversary of his initial COVID-19 infection — Shiflet began skinning up Tiehack again, which he said felt good until he pushed himself too hard.
“Last week was a glimpse of life, I’m doing what I used to, this is sweet and I’m feeling good,” he said. “But then the heart thing kicked in and it’s like, ‘Whoa that’s scary and I guess I’m not back and I’m not quite there.'”
A year after his initial infection, he said he still feels chest pains, heart pains, breathlessness, sleeplessness, cramping and fatigue, which sometimes leads to depression.
“Yeah I don’t feel like the same person most of the time” he said earlier this month. “So I don’t know … all of that weighs on me mentally, physically. I know with my family, I’m definitely not myself. I don’t wrestle around with my kids like I used to. That’s all tough.”
“And they just don’t know …”
Kate McMahon, a Glenwood Springs resident, also caught COVID-19 in March. Her symptoms included sore throat, body aches, joint pain, sinus congestion, fever, loss of taste and smell and fatigue. She said that just getting up and going to the bathroom was all she could manage before she had to crawl back in bed.
“I was really sick for about four weeks,” she told The Times in September. “You kind of felt like you just ran a marathon if you got up and you did an whole lot of anything. It was like a total of six weeks until I was like, ‘OK, I kind of feel like a human again.'”
McMahon, however, was second-year graduate student in chemistry and needed to begin studying for exams in which she had to present research to a committee of four people. During that time, she experienced fatigue, shortness of breath, sporadic muscle and joint pain, brain fog and tightness in her chest. Still, she somehow made it through and passed, she said.
“I mean, part of it was like, I just wanted to get through it, so I muscled through it,” McMahon said. “I mean, I didn’t feel good. I was tired all the time.”
Six months after her COVID diagnosis, though, she said she had good days and bad days.
“It’s frustrating because some days I can do a lot and some days I just can’t do anything,” McMahon said in September. “I’m in the middle of getting a lot of testing done to figure out why my shortness of breath and some of my other respiratory problems aren’t getting better. And they just don’t know so we’re trying to figure it out.”
Health networks in for the long haul
As more and more people report long-haul symptoms, local health care officials are responding.
Aspen Valley Hospital and Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs are starting multi-disciplinary clinics to help area residents, according to Aspen Valley CEO Dave Ressler and Dr. David Brooks, chief medical officer at Valley View.
“We’re setting up a network of experts to support patients in our community who are still suffering from COVID symptoms,” Ressler said. “It’s very clear the community will need some support.”
Both clinics will require a referral from a primary care physicians and include experts in cardiology, pulmonology, neurology and other disciplines because of the number of varied symptoms caused by the virus.
In addition, AVH is starting a support group next month led by a social worker for long-haulers suffering depression and anxiety as a result of the on-going symptoms, Ressler said.
“This is affecting people’s lives,” he said.
The significant number of long-haulers presents a strong warning to those members of the community who have not yet been affected by COVID-19, said Ressler, Vance and Brooks.
“You just don’t know (how it will affect you),” Vance said. “We’re not finding any strong predictors that will lead to long-term effects.”
The message to those yet uninfected is to continue to protect themselves and their families from the virus by practicing social distancing, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated when the opportunity comes about, they said.
“It really is about protecting the community and protecting community health against these long-term symptoms,” Ressler said. “It’s not like getting over a cold or the flu.”