I am one of those weirdos who still wears a mask, gets regular vaccinations, and uses hand sanitizer. But these precautions were no match for an extended family member who failed to recognize that he had COVID. Which is how I finally contracted the virus. The person claimed his symptoms were “just allergies” until he finally tested himself. (If I had a dollar for every time I got a cold from someone who said it was “just allergies,” I would be a wealthy woman.)
But my symptoms are very mild, only a headache, achiness, sore throat, and unhappy lungs. Despite having several risk factors, including asthma, my doctor, who is an expert in infectious diseases and runs the health department in Key West, recommended against taking Paxlovid. The Omicron variant, while more contagious, is less dangerous for someone who has kept current with their vaccinations and has mild symptoms. I consider myself lucky.
But COVID 19 is still a threat and for more reasons than you think. For one, monoclonal antibodies are ineffective against these new variants. And the new variants are even more contagious than previous ones.
The newest subvariant of Omicron, is so transmissible that everybody is at risk of catching it, even if they’ve already been infected and are fully vaccinated. It now accounts for 27.6% of COVID cases in the US and is especially prevalent in the Northeast, accounting for more than 70% of cases.
COVID 19 is also more dangerous than previously believed. A recent article in Nature reported the findings from autopsies of 44 unvaccinated people who died from severe COVID. The results were alarming. The virus was found in the respiratory system and 79 other body locations, including the heart, kidneys, liver, muscles, nerves, reproductive tract, and eyes.
They concluded that the virus is capable of infecting and replicating within the human brain, thus crossing the blood/brain barrier. They believe that the virus spreads via the blood in its early stages throughout the body.
The CDC discovered that COVID 19 has been in the US longer than previously thought. Apparently, the US Patient Zero returned from Wuhan Province in China and went into the emergency room on January 15, 2020. The first US fatality occurred in February 2020.
To date, almost 102 million cases have been diagnosed in the U.S and there have been more than 1.1 million COVID-related deaths. Globally, there have been more than 668 million cases and 6.7 million COVID-related deaths (and probably a lot more, because it is known that China underreports).
And now there is Long COVID.
Long COVID, long-haul COVID, post-COVID-19 condition, and chronic COVID are all names for the health problems that some people experience within a few months after being infected. Long COVID can also trigger other health conditions, such as diabetes or kidney disease.
Since recent research shows that the virus infects many parts of the body, it makes sense that the immune system could malfunction. Like most autoimmune diseases, Long COVID is most common in women. It is currently estimated 7.5% of adults who contracted COVID 19 will suffer from Long COVID (although the newest Omicron variant seems to have fewer). Some of the symptoms of Long COVID are brain fog, fatigue, body pain, shortness of breath, racing heart, sleep disorders, and mental health issues (e.g., depression). These are similar symptoms to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Chronic Lyme Disease. Other Long COVID symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, chronic pain, and dizziness fall in the category of nervous system disorders.
The causes of Long COVID are also unknown (like most autoimmune diseases) so scientists are speculating that it could be damage caused by the virus or by the body’s immune system. Others surmise that the virus may be hiding in the body, possibly the gut. Scientists suspect that this virus reactivates, causing the immune system to become overactive and attack the patient’s own organs and tissues.
Studies are not clear on who is at risk for developing Long COVID. It appears that women, those who reported more than five symptoms in the first week of infection, and those with preexisting health conditions (asthma, auto-immune diseases) may be more susceptible to Long COVID. And the newest research suggests that those infected with COVID more than once have an increased risk of developing Long COVID as well as other health complications. So being infected once doesn’t make you immune and makes you at risk for Long COVID if you get reinfected. The evidence shows that reinfection further increases risks of death, hospitalization, and damage to multiple organ systems.
People who’ve kept up their vaccinations are less likely to have a reinfection, or when they do have a reinfection, are less likely to have severe infection.
And Long COVID can kill. To date, 3,500 US deaths have been attributed to Long COVID.
This scourge will be with us for a long, long time. To protect ourselves, doctors recommend continuing to wear masks, using sanitizer, and, most importantly, keeping up-to-date on vaccines. Despite our desire to be “past this,” we must recognize that this is a novel virus to the human immune system, and scientists are only beginning to learn about its long-term impact.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.