For COVID-19 ’long-haulers’ in the North Bay, virus fallout lingers on
New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were surging across the nation in mid-November last year. That was about when Santa Rosa resident Madi Baer realized the virus had taken her sense of smell.
A few days into quarantine, Baer, 21, slipped into the kitchen of her parents’ home while they and her siblings were out, to avoid the risk of passing on the infection. She grabbed a bag of coffee from the cupboard above the fridge, inhaled and immediately knew something was off.
“I opened the container and there was nothing,” she said. “That’s kind of when I figured I had lost it.”
Baer, a nursing student at Azuza Pacific University who returned home in November after finishing clinical rotations in the hospital, found the experience “kind of cool” at first. A month in, those feelings shifted to fear and isolation. By March, nearly 140 days after her first symptoms, she finds it somewhat laughable, she said.
“Everything just doesn’t taste as strong as it used to, but after four months I feel like I’m used to it,” she said.
The cause of Baer’s diminished sense of smell and taste, and how best to treat it, is one of the most mysterious of several long-term effects that some COVID-19 survivors experience for weeks or even months after initial infection. Across the globe and in the North Bay, COVID “long-haulers,” as they’re called, are seeking answers from doctors and scientists, who are grasping for information about the long-term implications of a virus that remains novel even as it continues to sicken and kill people a year into the pandemic in the U.S.
Several months in, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began exploring these long-term afflictions as more patients reported them, and several universities around the U.S. are helping lead the charge to learn more, said Dr. Gary Green, infectious disease specialist with Sutter Health in Santa Rosa. He keeps apprised of developments by participating in calls with the CDC and other partners on the topic as researchers continue to seek insight on the recovery process.
“I think we have most of the pieces to help patients in our traditional medical system,” Green said. “We probably need to coordinate them. But how do you coordinate something when you’re just understanding it at the same time? That’s a million-dollar question.”
The lingering symptoms can range in severity from mild inconveniences to serious hindrances that impede people’s ability to return to their work and normal routines. For Lower Lake resident Yvonne Sosa and her two daughters, the effect of lingering COVID symptoms has constrained much of their lives outside home.
Angela Shaffer, 21, Sosa’s elder daughter, tested positive in early December, though Sosa believes she passed the infection to her daughter after being exposed at work. More than 100 days later, neither of the two had returned to full-time work.
Sosa, 40, logged her first day back on the job since January on Friday. She said she was worried about being replaced or dismissed if she continued her leave.
She had more than just her own symptoms to worry about in that time. She also is looking after her elderly father, who survived COVID-19 but spent six weeks in the hospital, during which time he lost the ability to walk and care for himself.
During the few weeks when she did return to her job as a cook at a local preschool, Sosa said she experienced a cognitive haze that made it difficult to concentrate, to speak coherently and to perform tasks.
“I broke down and told my boss, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” she said. “I couldn’t remember where anything was. I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do with the food.”
Sosa visited the emergency room once, when the shortness of breath that she still experiences was most severe and her doctor told her that her blood work showed she was at risk for blood clots. That was three weeks after her initial infection. But during her initial sickness, her symptoms had mostly been manageable: a fever and body aches that faded within a couple of weeks. She quarantined in her bedroom and thought she had recovered before the onset of the cough, shortness of breath and brain fog.
‘I’m not back to how I used to be’
Researchers in the earlier months of the pandemic focused largely on long-haulers who had severe cases of COVID-19 and were hospitalized. More recently, attention is being turned toward long-haulers who were not hospitalized or who had no initial symptoms at all, such as Sosa and her daughters.
Nichtehaa Sosa, 14, is also struggling with fatigue and cognitive difficulties after being sick with COVID-19. An A student, she had to drop a class because of difficulties completing her work.