Covid long haulers face an uncertain future

Stephanie Lynch

On Thursday, Missouri’s Health Director Dr. Randall Williams said that the state has no plans to move teachers to the front of the Covid-19 vaccination line, such as neighboring states Kansas and Illinois have. One-year ago, the first cases of coronavirus reached Missouri. Some are diagnosed and show no signs; others get very sick with flu-like symptoms, brain fog, rapid heart rate, and inability to sleep through the night. This morning I have the story of one mom, a kindergarten teacher, and her struggle to live with and move beyond COVID-19.

Stephanie Lynch was an active Mom. A teacher in Webb City moved to the area to take a job as a teacher almost 15-years ago, weeks after she graduated from the University of Connecticut. She had never visited Webb City, much less Southwest Missouri. Even if you meet and speak to her once, you can hear the enthusiasm, energy, and passion for life. She was active.

“I’ve actually run several 5-K races, and I, try to run, several times a week. I could do up to 10k. Now granted I’m not fast by any means, but before Covid, this is something that I could do any given day of the week.”

Stephanie and her family took all of the precautions when coronavirus reached the area in March of last year. Her husband, an essential worker, would go directly to the shower to ensure that he didn’t bring the disease home. They wiped everything down, wore masks, and stayed home. The trip every summer, back to Connecticut to see and visit with her family, canceled.

“Usually every summer I go back to visit my family, I haven’t seen them in over a year now, it’s going to be multiple years.”

Early on in the pandemic when schools were closed, and it was shifted to online learning Stephanie followed the rules and took flattening the curve seriously.

“I mean, we did nothing, the whole time that we were in lock-down, we talked our neighborhood, and did outside activities at our house. I mean, we did grocery pick-up, we did everything that we could, you know, to keep ourselves safe, as well as everyone around us safe.”

In August of 2020, after schools closed earlier that year due to COVID-19 concerns, Governor Mike Parson gave numerous reassurances that schools in the state were safe to reopen amid a reelection campaign. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued guidance on how schools could reopen safely. Governor Parson said that local districts should have control of their schools, not the state. Schools in Webb City open in late August.

Like 1,000’s of other educators across the state, Stephanie had no choice.

“And then, when things started reopening, and people had to start going back to their lives I had to go back, to work and school and within 3-days of that, I got Covid.”

Immediately the school shut down for a week after it was reported that at least 10 of Stephanie’s 24 co-workers had tested positive for coronavirus. Unlike other nearby cities like Joplin and Springfield, the school district, Webb City, or Jasper county have never had a mask mandate. The district that employs Stephanie issued a public statement, saying in part quote “that the School District will continue to put our students and staff safety as a top priority.” unquote.

Initially, she thought she had terrible allergies. She spent time outside with her family, as late summer started to transition to fall in August. She got a headache and was coughing. She returned to work the next day.

“But then the next day, I went back to school, back to work, I just started feeling really rundown, really miserable, I just felt sick, you know that feeling you get when you know you’re coming down with something. And then later that evening I took my temperature and I had a fever of 101.”

The next day she would go get tested to confirm her worst fears. On top of that, that night, her fever reach 103.7, she had Covid-19. Initially, she had the common symptoms of losing her sense of taste or smell, in addition to the continued headache and fever. Also, the tightness in her chest was worsening. And within 3-days of the positive test, she had to return to her local clinic, where he was prescribed a nebulizer. And then there was the fatigue.

“Just even getting out of bed to go use the bathroom was excruciating, there were days when I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t eat for several days. If it wasn’t for my husband, who also contracted Covid because I brought it home, and he still tried to care for me as best he could while he was fighting his own symptoms.”

Fast forward to November of 2020, Stephanie was now a Covid long-hauler, still experiencing severe symptoms from the disease, including headaches and shortness of breath. Previous to Covid, she had never used an inhaler once; now it was her daily lifeline. There were other numerous ailments.

Insomnia, dropping things, forgetting words, the heart palpitations, and tachycardia.

Stephanie, the formerly active 5 K running teacher, was now stricken with deliberating disease was going to a Covid post-care clinic at Mercy in Carthage looking for answers.

Doctor John Venter is a Pulmonologist at Mercy Clinic in Carthage who has practiced for almost 40-years. He says that he has never seen anything like the coronavirus, and what makes treating it difficult is that it affect every patient differently.

Dr. Johnny Venter, Mercy Carthage, Missouri

“There is no real treatment that’s been effective for one and all.”

According to Dr. Venter, a majority of Covid patients have shortness of breath and couch, and he’s been able to develop a treatment program to treat that. Another common symptom that he is seeing is fatigue and headache, muscle pain, rapid heart rate, and severe depression.

The most troubling to treat for Dr. Venter is what he calls brain fog. When a patient has a difficult time thinking and concentrating.

“But it’s about 40 percent of the people, who have Covid will have some form of neurological logical disorder. And that can not necessarily turn into long haul, but sometimes the brain fog is the longest and hardest thing for the patient to recover from.”

4 in 10 people who contract Covid will likely have a neurological disorder, according to Dr. Venter. He says that the depression due to Covid-19 can be very severe as people struggle to regain and recover from a disease that has robbed them of their previous everyday lives. That the depression that he is seeing in patients is linked to not getting enough sleep because of Covid.

“A lot of it is because they are so tired, they go home early from work, as early as they can, and go to bed early, just so they can get through the next day.”

So far, those Covid patients with depression are being treated with anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication. While, people who are experiencing brain fog, are being referred to cognitive brain therapy.

Dr. Robert McNab 11/17/20

Dr. Robert McNab, the Director of Freeman Health System’s Covid-19 unit in Joplin, sees similar experiences by Covid patients and thinks that long-haulers will be more common than people realize.

“When we look at the patients that have been infected with Covid, somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of patients will still have residual symptoms that can go on for 6 to 12 months after their accurate infection.”

Dr. McNab wants to dispel the notion that just because you have had minor symptoms at the outset that it doesn’t mean you will not have more severe problems as time goes on. Doctors simply don’t know what actual long-term effects will be. Over the first year of this pandemic, he has seen many patients that exhibit the common traits of Covid. Still, as Dr. Venter noted earlier in the story, there is no best-case scenario for every person, every time.

“Designing out, what’s going to be the best, quote, unquote, treatment for any one patient, is going to have to be very individualized, and right the conversation worldwide in the health community is about what spectrum of treatments will be most effective for these patients.”

Depending on the patient and the severity of their conditions, Dr. McNab says that recovering from Covid could range from physical therapy, strengthening your diaphragm, talking to a counselor, and taking anti-depression medication. Every patient will likely need their own personalized plan for recovery. There is one thing he recommends, whether you have had Covid or not, getting the vaccine.

“Ya, so the current recommendation is that you should go ahead and get that vaccination.”

One thing that has surprised him about the vaccine, as opposed to getting Covid is the immune response and protection that the vaccine offers. McNab also says that if you have had the disease and are going to receive the vaccine, you should expect a similar response.

“You should expect that some degree of similarity of the symptoms from when they had active Covid. When they get that vaccine in their immune system, starts to build that response”

Stephanie, who has now lived with Covid for over six months, continues to wear a mask in public. Will she get the Covid vaccine?

“Absolutely, I know it doesn’t 100 percent, necessarily prevent you from getting Covid, but if it will keep me safe, my family safe, as well as the people and the kiddos that I work with safe, absolutely. I will absolutely get it when it’s available to me.”

For K R P S, I’m Fred Fletcher-Fierro in Webb City

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