It’s December 2021, and I’m receiving my COVID-19 booster shot in the sterile, linoleum-lined examination room at the back of a Safeway.
“I saw somewhere that COVID vaccines can help lessen long COVID symptoms,” I say. “Could that happen with the booster?”
The pharmacist looks at me with a sympathetic expression before telling me that if the initial two vaccines didn’t help at all, the booster shot sure won’t.
Disappointed, I describe my symptoms halfheartedly, hoping that maybe, somehow, my case could be an exception. The pharmacist pauses to search for the right term before telling me that it’s likely my lungs have “hardened.” I still cringe when I remember that word; it’s not an adjective you want used to describe a vital organ.
I was diagnosed with COVID in November 2020. Two years later, I’ve never fully recovered.
When I was first informed of the diagnosis, my heart dropped. The first words out of my mouth were, “Are you kidding me?” The doctor replied that he wouldn’t joke about something as serious as this and handed me my test results to prove it. Holding the paper with shaky hands, I felt a rush of fear and anger. I’d done everything I was supposed to do.
For eight months before being diagnosed, I kept myself isolated, following every rule the CDC projected. I wore my mask anytime I had to leave my apartment, even outdoors. I relied on Zoom and social media to keep up with my friends. I even avoided public places like grocery stores and pharmacies, opting to receive deliveries to my apartment lobby instead. My pre-existing asthma was severe enough to be a concern in the face of a novel respiratory disease spreading across the globe.
The doctor who diagnosed me said I probably caught it in my elevator, which transported hundreds of unmasked students up and down the floors of my apartment building daily, dubbed “the party apartment” by classmates. He called it a “Petri dish.”
Management refused to let residents know about COVID cases within the building, making it difficult to know whether I was at risk for exposure, but I never really felt at ease there. I eventually stopped asking people to wear their masks in the elevator after a boy who lived on my floor casually replied with a long stream of curse words.
After reporting this particular incident, management said they were doing the best they could, and there was an official mask policy in place. But it seemed to me like nobody was willing to enforce it at any point during the pandemic.
I shut inside my unit and attempted to calm my fear and panic by recounting my age, my relative health, my ability to access medical care and the accommodations given to University of Oregon students suffering from COVID. Any comfort found in these facts disappeared as weeks, then months went by. My chest remained painfully tight, my breathing always shallow. I tried to ignore it and wave it away with a few hundred puffs of my asthma inhaler, telling myself it had to be over soon. I did my best to avoid the elevator in my apartment, worried that I might catch COVID again with my already damaged lungs.
The apprehension eventually culminated in an exercise-induced asthma attack in the third-floor stairwell, where I briefly passed out trying to bring groceries back up to my unit. I came to a few minutes later, my heart racing and my lungs still wheezing. I dropped the groceries and crawled up two more flights of stairs to my unit, where my asthma inhaler sat on my desk. I don’t go anywhere without my inhaler anymore.
Two months after being diagnosed in November, I accepted that this was not a temporary condition. Reluctantly, I typed the words “COVID symptoms not going away” into my laptop search engine. Hundreds of clicks later, I booked an appointment with a local health specialist, who confirmed what I was dreading: I have long COVID.
Long-term effects of COVID, also known as long COVID or post-COVID conditions, are described by the CDC as “a range of symptoms that can last weeks or months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.” A few of the most common acute ailments are a cough, joint or muscle pain and fatigue, though the wide range of symptoms is indicative of the virus’s ability to affect every part of your body.
Though the novelty of COVID has made it difficult to know much about long-term effects, dozens of studies are trying to estimate the risk of having lingering symptoms months after a COVID infection. The research that we do have has shown that long COVID significantly increases the chance of triggering post-viral syndromes such as chronic fatigue syndrome and a blood circulation disorder called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.
The world is moving on from COVID — at least it’s trying to. Schools are back in session, states are dropping mask mandates and that tentative first month of baking bread and taking cautious walks seems like a distant memory. But my body is still trapped in those last few weeks of November 2021.
Due to the pressing social expectation to return to in-person classes, activities and everyday life, I am no longer permitted to rest in bed all day, get groceries delivered and do the hourly breathing exercises recommended by my doctor. I have graduation to prepare for, and somehow I’ve taken on five different extracurriculars. It’s time to try and go back to normal, but my breathing remains irregular.
Notably absent from discussions of reopening schools, businesses and other workplaces, individuals suffering from post-COVID conditions have seemingly been left to fend for themselves as society continues onward without them. UO’s official page of COVID regulations says “individuals should stay home when sick,” offering no further explanation or clarification for people who remain sick in the long term. It left me wondering if they were just referring to contagious people or if I was genuinely expected to stay home every day that I wake up with damaged lungs.
It’s been predicted by historians that COVID could end socially before it ends medically, meaning people may grow so tired of the restrictions that the pandemic will be declared over, even if the population continues to be severely afflicted.
Studies show that patients who were hospitalized for COVID are the most likely to retain long-term symptoms. In a study published in July 2020, Italian researchers followed 147 patients who had been hospitalized for COVID and found that 87% still had symptoms 60 days after they were discharged from the hospital. A study from January 2021 found that 76% of hospitalized COVID patients in Wuhan, China, were still experiencing symptoms six months after first getting sick.
UO senior Sophie Hansen also had COVID in November 2020. Her first diagnosis of long COVID came a few weeks after the initial positive test result. After days of being unable to keep food or water down due to COVID, Hansen was told that her kidneys were not functioning properly.
Long COVID can cause damage to multiple organs in the body, including heart, lung, kidney, skin and brain. Long COVID can also trigger autoimmune conditions, which happen when your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake, causing inflammation or tissue damage in the affected parts of the body.
Immediately struck with denial, Hansen told herself she has her youth to her advantage and that continuing to take care of her kidney health would eventually remedy whatever lasting effects COVID had left on her body.
That has not been the case. Hansen describes accepting long COVID as a “really shitty process.” The realization that being young and healthy on paper didn’t guarantee her the ability to fight off chronic COVID-related illness was difficult for her to deal with.
“But now,” Hansen says, “it’s just another aspect of my life I have to think about in terms of budget/ability to afford tests and treatment with really unreliable insurance.”
Despite needing to be kept under hospital observation a few times a month, Hansen tries to slip back into everyday college life. But it’s not easy; Hansen’s sustained kidney damage still makes it hard for her to keep down food and water in general, causing her to become nauseous frequently.
Hansen says she constantly worries about not having access to water or other fluids. Eating or drinking anything outside her home means running the risk of becoming sick and needing to excuse herself. “It’s made it really hard to be away from home,” Hansen says.
UO freshman Han Boyd-Hiers had COVID in January 2022. Their symptoms have since overstayed their welcome. Boyd-Hiers deals with nerve pain and trouble with concentration and balance due to Spina Bifida. These chronic issues were heavily exacerbated by COVID, and remained that way weeks after the initial COVID diagnosis.
“Another thing that has gotten worse is my asthma,” Boyd-Hiers says. “Because it takes so much just to breathe and function. I’ve been using my inhaler a lot more, just because I’m out of breath every time I’m walking, especially if I don’t have my wheelchair and I’m just walking with my cane.”
Boyd-Hiers says those suffering from long COVID have been excluded from the conversation surrounding COVID procedure going forward; they are still expected to go about their day and do everything the way they did before developing long COVID despite their severe fatigue, major brain fog and daily migraines.
“After five days in isolation, the school expects you to have your shit together,” Boyd-Hiers says. “It’s an extremely hard transition for young adults, especially those of us who are mentally and physically ill.”
Boyd-Hiers was expected to continue with school despite continuing symptoms. Still, they say their professors had discouraged any symptomatic students from attending in-person classes, suggesting that Boyd-Hiers utilize the Zoom alternatives and recordings provided.
“My teachers were not the problem,” Boyd-Hiers says. “My problem was that what they were offering wasn’t accessible for me because of fatigue and the lack of a personal computer.”
By the time Boyd-Hiers was finally recovering from both COVID and a stress-induced sinus infection, their professors were telling them to drop their courses, saying they’d missed too much class.
A Penn State study from October 2021 found that over half of the population diagnosed with COVID will experience post-COVID symptoms up to six months after recovering. The research team says that governments, health care organizations and public health professionals should be prepared for the large number of COVID survivors who will need help with various psychological and physical symptoms.
Due to the sheer prevalence of long COVID rates among COVID survivors, Boyd-Heirs would like to see more of an effort on the part of the UO to decrease COVID rates.
“I think the school can do a lot to diminish the amount of people getting COVID by doing testing before going into terms,” Boyd-Hiers says. They also suggest that if UO administration notices or anticipates a COVID surge, they should enforce a transition to online class for at least two weeks instead of putting pressure on students and forcing them to risk their health to go in-person.
“I was put in a position where I had to risk my health,” Boyd-Hiers says. They’re currently catching up on three weeks of missed work, without remote resources like a laptop to get assignments done off-campus. Further adding to the stress is the discomfort of a post-COVID chronic cough. “People are just going to assume I am sick with COVID when I’m not,” Boyd-Hiers says. “I’ve already been sick. I just have a chronic illness.”
PeaceHealth infectious disease specialist Dr. Bob Pelz says the most important steps people can take to avoid the risk of long COVID are minimizing exposure to COVID and getting vaccinated since there is no therapy that helps specifically with long COVID symptoms yet. However, people can generally seek treatment for a specific ailment.
I bought a nebulizer and received what seemed like 100 pages of breathing exercises from my doctor. I’m still waiting to see if these tactics help my lungs improve.
“Good self-care, including exercise, a healthy diet, a good sleep schedule and avoiding tobacco and substance abuse are all important for recovery from long COVID,” Dr. Pelz says, who also serves on Governor Kate Brown’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee. But in more severe cases, he says that “medical care for long COVID often means a team approach with different specialists helping to manage symptoms that can affect multiple organ systems.”
“I’m being monitored regularly and just have to ensure that my kidney health isn’t deteriorating further,” Hansen says. “Beyond that, not much can be done.”
Research is still evolving regarding how long COVID can affect young adults as opposed to children or older adults. But Dr. Pelz says that “adolescents and young adults clearly can be affected, likely with frequency and severity similar to that seen in older adults.”
Today, Hansen remains paranoid that she’ll get COVID again because she knows she’s capable of getting it. She says that “any symptoms whatsoever, even if I experience them daily, are warning signs that I can’t help but acknowledge.”
I’ve managed to take all of my classes this term remotely, but next term’s schedule presents new in-person challenges. I think about how to explain to my friends and classmates why I’m constantly running late, out of breath and coughing frequently. The last few times I’ve tried, people recoil, assuming I had COVID recently and am still contagious.
“It’s not like that,” I try to tell them. “I had COVID a long time ago.”
Oregon governor Kate Brown has cited March 11, 2022, as the last day Oregonians will be mandated to wear masks in indoor public spaces and schools. Following the decision of the local government to lift the mask mandate, UO has announced on its website that after March 18, 2022, masks will be “welcome though optional, except in health care settings.”
I don’t know if I’m going to keep wearing my mask. In light of everything that has happened, it seems silly to pretend that I have any idea what the future holds.