Long-Haulers Are Redefining COVID-19
Without understanding the lingering illness that some patients experience, we can’t understand the pandemic.
Lauren Nichols has been sick with COVID-19 since March 10, shortly before Tom Hanks announced his diagnosis and the NBA temporarily canceled its season. She has lived through one month of hand tremors, three of fever, and four of night sweats. When we spoke on day 150, she was on her fifth month of gastrointestinal problems and severe morning nausea. She still has extreme fatigue, bulging veins, excessive bruising, an erratic heartbeat, short-term memory loss, gynecological problems, sensitivity to light and sounds, and brain fog. Even writing an email can be hard, she told me, “because the words I think I’m writing are not the words coming out.” She wakes up gasping for air twice a month. It still hurts to inhale.
Tens of thousands of people, collectively known as “long-haulers,” have similar stories. I first wrote about them in early June. Since then, I’ve received hundreds of messages from people who have been suffering for months—alone, unheard, and pummeled by unrelenting and unpredictable symptoms. “It’s like every day, you reach your hand into a bucket of symptoms, throw some on the table, and say, ‘This is you for today,’” says David Putrino, a neuroscientist and a rehabilitation specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital who has cared for many long-haulers.
Of the long-haulers Putrino has surveyed, most are women. Their average age is 44. Most were formerly fit and healthy. They look very different from the typical portrait of a COVID-19 patient—an elderly person with preexisting health problems. “It’s scary because in the states that are surging, we have all these young people going out thinking they’re invincible, and this could easily knock them out for months,” Putrino told me. And for some, months of illness could turn into years of disability.
Our understanding of COVID-19 has accreted around the idea that it kills a few and is “mild” for the rest. That caricature was sketched before the new coronavirus even had a name; instead of shifting in the light of fresh data, it calcified. It affected the questions scientists sought to ask, the stories journalists sought to tell, and the patients doctors sought to treat. It excluded long-haulers from help and answers. Nichols’s initial symptoms were so unlike the official description of COVID-19 that her first doctor told her she had acid reflux and refused to get her tested. “Even if you did have COVID-19, you’re 32, you’re healthy, and you’re not going to die,” she remembers him saying. (She has since tested positive.)
Long-haulers had to set up their own support groups. They had to start running their own research projects. They formed alliances with people who have similar illnesses, such as dysautonomia and myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. A British group—LongCovidSOS—launched a campaign to push the government for recognition, research, and support.
All of this effort started to have an effect. More journalists wrote stories about them. Some doctors began taking their illness seriously. Some researchers are developing treatment and rehabilitation programs. Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland introduced a bill that would allow the National Institutes of Health to fund and coordinate more research into chronic illnesses that follow viral infections.
It’s not enough, argues Nisreen Alwan, a public-health professor at the University of Southampton who has had COVID-19 since March 20. She says that experts and officials should stop referring to all nonhospitalized cases as “mild.” They should agree on a definition of recovery that goes beyond being discharged from the hospital or testing negative for the virus, and accounts for a patient’s quality of life. “We cannot fight what we do not measure,” Alwan says. “Death is not the only thing that counts. We must also count lives changed.”
Only then will we truly know the full stakes of the pandemic. As many people still fantasize about returning to their previous lives, some are already staring at a future where that is no longer possible.
A few formal studies have hinted at the lingering damage that COVID-19 can inflict. In an Italian study, 87 percent of hospitalized patients still had symptoms after two months; a British study found similar trends. A German study that included many patients who recovered at home found that 78 percent had heart abnormalities after two or three months. A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a third of 270 nonhospitalized patients hadn’t returned to their usual state of health after two weeks. (For comparison, roughly 90 percent of people who get the flu recover within that time frame.)
These findings, though limited, are galling. They suggest that in the United States alone, which has more than 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, there are probably hundreds of thousands of long-haulers.
These people are still paying the price for early pandemic failures. Many long-haulers couldn’t get tested when they first fell sick, because such tests were scarce. Others were denied tests because their symptoms didn’t conform to a list we now know was incomplete. False negatives are more common as time wears on; when many long-haulers finally got tested weeks or months into their illness, the results were negative. On average, long-haulers who tested negative experienced the same set of symptoms as those who tested positive, which suggests that they truly do have COVID-19. But their negative result still hangs over them, shutting them out of research and treatments.
Several studies have found that most COVID-19 patients produce antibodies that recognize the new coronavirus, and that these molecules endure for months. Their presence should confirm whether a long-hauler was indeed infected. But there’s a catch: Most existing antibody studies focused on either hospitalized patients or those with mild symptoms and swift recoveries. By contrast, Putrino told me that in his survey of 1,400 long-haulers, two-thirds of those who have had antibody tests got negative results, even though their symptoms were consistent with COVID-19. Nichols, for example, tested negative for antibodies after twice testing positive for the coronavirus itself. “Just because you’re negative for antibodies doesn’t mean you didn’t have COVID-19,” Putrino said.
Organizations and governments have been slow to recognize what long-haulers call “long COVID.” In July, the U.K. allocated $11 million (£8.4 million) for research into the long-term consequences of COVID-19, but “to be eligible, you have to have been admitted into hospital,” says Trisha Greenhalgh, a primary-health-care professor at the University of Oxford. “That makes no sense.” Meanwhile, the CDC’s website still does not mention this phenomenon, and its list of symptoms barely reflects the full range of neurological problems. As late as June 25, the agency’s deputy director for infectious diseases said “we don’t yet know” whether COVID-19 “could persist for more than a few months.” By then, thousands of long-haulers already did know, and had been talking about it.
Without clear information from official sources, many long-haulers have found answers from one another. Support groups on Facebook have thousands of members. One Slack group, founded within a wellness organization called Body Politic, has almost doubled in size since June to more than 7,000 active participants from 25 countries. There are channels for discussing every organ system in the body. There are lists of sympathetic medical providers, and tips for convincing those who aren’t listening. Eerily, the group’s membership morphs as the pandemic spreads: “When Brazil had a huge spike, we had a massive influx of Brazilian patients,” said Nichols, who is an administrator.
The Body Politic group has its own team of researchers, whose survey of 640 long-haulers remains the most illuminating study of the long COVID experience. More than any formally published study, it cataloged the full range of symptoms, and explored problems with stigma and testing.
Many long-haulers start feeling better in their fourth or fifth month, but recovery is tentative, variable, and not guaranteed. Hannah Davis, an artist in New York City, still has fever, facial numbness, brain fog, and rapid heartbeats whenever she stands up, but she’s sleeping better, at least; at the end of July, she had her first relatively normal day since mid-March. Margot Gage, a social epidemiologist at Lamar University, has only now regained the ability to read without shooting pain, but still has debilitating headaches and fatigue. Hannah Wei, a product designer based in Ottawa who is a Body Politic researcher, has recovered from her neurological symptoms but not the scars the coronavirus left on her lungs. “Will I be living with this lasting damage, or will it eventually go away?” she says. “I don’t have the answers, and no one can tell me.”
The physical toll of long COVID almost always comes with an equally debilitating comorbidity of disbelief. Employers have told long-haulers that they couldn’t possibly be sick for that long. Friends and family members accused them of being lazy. Doctors refused to believe they had COVID-19. “Every specialist I saw—cardiologist, rheumatologist, dermatologist, neurologist—was wedded to this idea that ‘mild’ COVID-19 infections last two weeks,” says Angela Meriquez Vázquez, a children’s activist in Los Angeles. “In one of my first ER visits, I was referred for a psychiatric evaluation, even though my symptoms were of heart attack and stroke.”
This “medical gaslighting,” whereby physiological suffering is downplayed as a psychological problem such as stress or anxiety, is especially bad for women, and even worse for women of color. “Doctors not taking our conditions seriously is a common issue, and now we have COVID-19 on top of it,” says Gage, who is Black. When she sought medical help for her symptoms, doctors in two separate hospitals assumed she was having a drug overdose.
Such gaslighting still occurs, but has been reduced by the recent spate of media attention. Davis was stunned when she met with a cardiologist who used the term long-hauler without needing an explanation. Vázquez burst into tears after her new primary-care provider instantly believed her. “I went into that appointment armed with my notebook, ready to do battle,” she says. “Just having a doctor who believed that my symptoms were directly related to COVID-19 was transformative.”
Putrino, the Mount Sinai doctor, came to recognize long COVID on his own. Back in March, he realized that some patients who were referred to his hospital were in bad shape but weren’t sick enough to be admitted. His team created an app to keep track of these people remotely. By late May, they realized that “around 10 percent just weren’t getting better,” he told me. He has since started a program at Mount Sinai that’s dedicated to caring for long-haulers.
But such programs are still scarce, creating large geographical deserts where long-haulers cannot find help. Putrino cannot see patients who live outside New York State. Igor Koralnik, a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine who runs a similar operation, was booked solid through April 2021; he has since brought extra staff members so he could accept more patients. Canadian long-haulers “have just one clinic, in Toronto, and that’s it,” Wei says.
Putrino thinks that many long-haulers have symptoms that resemble dysautonomia. This is an umbrella term for disorders that disturb the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. Damage to this system, whether inflicted by the virus itself or by an overly intense immune response, might explain why many long-haulers struggle for breath when their oxygen levels are normal, or have unsteady heartbeats when they aren’t feeling anxious. Things that were once automatic are now erratic.
More than 90 percent of long-haulers whom Putrino has worked with also have “post-exertional malaise,” in which even mild bouts of physical or mental exertion can trigger a severe physiological crash. “We’re talking about walking up a flight of stairs and being out of commission for two days,” Putrino said. This is the defining symptom of myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. For decades, people with ME/CFS have endured the same gendered gaslighting that long-haulers are now experiencing. They’re painfully familiar with both medical neglect and a perplexing portfolio of symptoms.
These symptoms defeat intuitions that people have about work and rest, sickness and recovery. “You have to get away from this idea that you can do more each day, or that you can push through,” says Caroline Dalton of Sheffield Hallam University in England, who works for a COVID-19 rehabilitation program. Many long-haulers push themselves because they miss their lives, or need to return to work. But as her colleague Robert Copeland, a sport psychologist, explains, “managing your fatigue is now your full-time job.”
The trick, then, is to slowly recondition a patient’s nervous system through careful exercises, without triggering a debilitating crash. On Putrino’s team, a strength and conditioning coach devises workouts to slowly get patients accustomed to a higher heart rate. A nutritionist fashions personalized meal plans to compensate for any dietary deficiencies. A neuropsychologist—Gudrun Lange, who has long worked with ME/CFS patients and is helping the group pro bono—uses relaxation and somatic-awareness techniques to help long-haulers manage their feelings about their condition.
Putrino insists on seeing and caring for all the long-haulers that he can. His colleagues at Mount Sinai’s newly launched center for post-COVID-19 care have to follow guidelines that permit them to admit only patients with positive tests. Anyone the center can’t admit is referred to Putrino’s team, which also keeps in touch with the Body Politic group to track patients who fall through the cracks.
I asked him why he is so inclined to believe long-haulers when so many other medical professionals dismiss them. First, he said, “these people are telling us the same things over and over again.” But also, his wife has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—a group of genetic disorders that affect the body’s connective tissues, and that commonly lead to dysautonomia. “I watched her go through the same thing: ‘You must have anxiety, or panic attacks, or every-excuse-under-the-sun,’” he told me. “Finally, after three years of searching, someone said, ‘Oh, you have dysautonomia and EDS.’ They put her on a treatment protocol, and she could live her life again.”
“If you listen to the population you’re trying to help, they’ll tell you what’s wrong,” he said.
Nichols is a few weeks away from meeting the CDC’s criteria for ME/CFS. She has post-exertional malaise. She has brain fog. On September 9, she’ll mark her sixth month of extreme fatigue. “Am I happy about it? No,” she said. “But I have to face reality. If this is what I have, this is what I have.” Lots of long-haulers are in the same boat. Many (but not all) cases of ME/CFS are triggered by viral infections, and new clusters have historically emerged after outbreaks. “When COVID-19 started to happen, I said to my husband, ‘Oh God, there’s going to be an avalanche of ME/CFS,’” Lange told me.
Some long-haulers are skeptical—and even angry—about the ME/CFS connection. They won’t countenance the prospect of being chronically disabled. They don’t want to be labeled with a condition that has long been trivialized. Nichols sympathizes; she used to trivialize it herself. “I falsely thought it was just people being too tired—and I feel terrible about that,” she said. Her plan is to use her imminent diagnosis as fuel for advocacy, “as a way of paying back the ME community for my disbelief.”
But COVID-19 is still a new disease, and ME/CFS is just one of several possible outcomes. Some long-haulers recover before the six-month threshold. Some don’t have post-exertional malaise. Some have lung damage and breathing problems that aren’t traditional ME/CFS symptoms. Some have symptoms that more closely fit with other chronic illnesses, including dysautonomia, fibromyalgia, or mast cell activation syndrome.
Putrino doesn’t want to assign any labels. “Let’s just start helping them,” he said, while simultaneously collecting data that will eventually show how much long COVID overlaps with other known syndromes. (Several other teams are conducting similar studies.) Even when symptoms such as fatigue are shared, their biological roots might differ—and those differences matter. Exercise might be devastating for someone with ME/CFS, but might benefit a patient with something else. Many long-haulers, meanwhile, are treating any diagnosis as more of an anchor than an answer: It’s a starting point for understanding what’s happening to them. Vázquez, for example, was diagnosed with MCAS, and although it’s not a perfect match for her symptoms, “it’s close enough,” she says.
No matter the exact diagnosis, the COVID-19 pandemic will almost certainly create a substantial wave of chronically disabled people. It might be hard to ignore this cohort because of the sheer number of them, the intense attention commanded by the pandemic, and the stories from celebrities such as the actor Alyssa Milano and the journalist Chris Cuomo. Then again, they might face the same neglect that people with ME/CFS have long endured. “We’ve been demanding for decades that people do something,” says Terri Wilder, who has ME/CFS and is an activist with #MEAction. “I’ve met with [NIH Director] Francis Collins. I’ve called Tony Fauci, and state senators. We still have no FDA-approved drugs, no systems of care. We only have 10 to 15 ME/CFS medical experts in the country. We all want our lives back, and we want this broken system fixed.”
The uncertainty that long-haulers are experiencing results from that long-standing neglect. But so does the help they’re getting from people with chronic illnesses, who have already walked the same path. When the pandemic began, “it was like watching the roller coaster go up the hill, and only people like us knew that the track was broken,” says Alison Sbrana, who has ME/CFS and dysautonomia. She now spends her few productive weekly hours moderating the Body Politic support group. She has invited ME/CFS and dysautonomia specialists to give seminars, and has directed people to credible resources on aspects of disabled life, including care and benefits.
That frontier, in which long-haulers attempt to access social support, “is about to be a shit show,” Sbrana says. Some want their employers to make accommodations, such as reduced hours or long-term sick leave, so they can keep working at a time when their medical bills are mounting. Others cannot work, but are pressured to do so by bosses who don’t understand what long COVID is. “We keep seeing that people who don’t have a positive test result struggle to get paid time off work,” says Fiona Lowenstein, who founded Body Politic. Yet others “don’t want people to see them as complainers, push themselves, and then get sicker,” says Barbara Comerford, a New Jersey–based attorney who specializes in disability law and has represented many people with ME/CFS.
If they lose their jobs, “they’re in really bad shape,” she adds. Other sources of disability benefits and care, including private insurance and Social Security, are notoriously hard to access. Long-haulers would need to provide a history of being unable to do substantial gainful employment, and ample medical documentation of their disability to prove that it’s expected to last at least a year. Many have neither.
Being a long-hauler in August is very different from being one in February. The first wave, who were infected early in the year, endured months of solitude and confusion. While the national narrative shifted from physical distancing to reopenings, their realities were pinned in place by fever or fatigue. Many had no idea that others were going through the same ordeal. They wondered why they were still sick, or how long they’d be sick for. “We didn’t know what tomorrow would bring,” Nichols said.
Long-hauler support groups act as windows in time. In the Body Politic community, “the earliest person we know got sick in January,” Davis says. “She posts from the future, two months ahead of everyone else.” Conversely, as veteran long-haulers watch new generations pass the same monthly milestones, some are struck by a strange sense of solidarity, validation, and jealousy. The newer long-haulers already know what to call themselves, have bustling communities to learn from, and have better access to tests and medical care. The older ones are battle-worn and weary. “There’s something about having got sick in March and April that’s a unique experience, almost like post-traumatic stress disorder,” Vázquez says.
Throughout the pandemic, systemic failures have been portrayed as personal ones. Many people ignored catastrophic governmental choices that allowed the coronavirus to spread unchecked, and instead castigated individuals for going to beaches or wearing masks incorrectly. So, too, with recovery. The act of getting better is frequently framed as a battle between person and pathogen, ignoring everything else that sways the outcome of that conflict—the disregard from doctors and the sympathy from strangers, the choices of policy makers and the narratives of journalists. Nothing about COVID-19 exists in a social vacuum. If people are to recover, “you have to create the conditions in which they can recover,” Copeland, the sport psychologist from Sheffield Hallam, says.
If those conditions don’t exist, they can be at least partly willed into existence. Here, too, the long-hauler story is a microcosm of the pandemic. In the U.S., citizens chose to physically distance themselves, take precautions, and wear masks long before leaders urged or ordered them to do so. Likewise, the long-haulers have taken matters into their own hands, pushing for respect, research, and support when none were offered.
But such effort comes at a cost. Long-haulers are precariously perched on a physiological precipice—a difficult position from which to fight for their future. “A lot of people who don’t have the energy to educate the world are educating the world,” Nichols said.