Phil Myers has a sit-down job, but he’s also mechanically inclined and quick to tackle problems around his house.
Yet well over a year after being stricken with COVID-19, a broken faucet can feel like the last straw.
“Because you’re so tired. You’re like, I can’t take on one more thing,” says Myers, 43, of Adams County.
Chronic fatigue is one of multiple problems Myers struggles with and which his doctors attribute to lingering consequences of COVID-19. Others include aching joints, “brain fog,” vision problems and a racing heartbeat.
He’s among the untold number of Americans affected by long-COVID, which involves medical problems that persist more than a month after a bout with COVID-19 and have no other explanation.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in five COVID-19 patients under age 65 and one in four who are older develop problems that continue for more than a month. A study of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the UK found less than three in ten felt fully recovered a year later. Still, much remains unknown about long-COVID, and the CDC says it will take about two years until it can offer definitive data about the prevalence.
Myers came down with COVID-19 in March, 2021. His fiancee had it at the same time.
He says it felt like a terrible case of the flu, with chills, extreme fatigue and breathing difficulty that “felt like someone was sitting on my chest.” A heating pad on his chest helped him through the worst of it.
“I probably should have gone to the hospital, but I never did,” says Myers, who tested positive at an urgent care center.
After 10 days, he and his fiancee felt better. He went back to work.
He still had fatigue and would get winded from walking to the second floor at work, but figured he was on the path to full recovery.
“I pretty much just muscled through it, because I’m the type where I just [think] get through it, it will go away. That’s my mentality,” he says.
Eventually he felt he was “80% better.”
But in early 2022, about nine months after his initial bout with COVID-19, his symptoms “exploded.”
His fatigue became much worse. So did the “brain fog,” which interfered with his memory and ability to concentrate. That was especially troubling for Myers, who considers himself almost compulsively organized. His thought process became “like a side road and then another side road — you’re constantly trying to keep yourself on the main highway.” The resulting stress and frustration made him easily agitated during interactions with co-workers and family.
He also had periods of blurry vision where his right eye stopped working in tandem with his left.
He went to his family doctor, who, after x-rays, blood work and medical tests, recommended he see a doctor who specializes in COVID-19.
He wound up at York County-based WellSpan Health’s COVID-19 clinic, which specializes in helping people with long-COVID, who are also known as “long-haulers.”
The clinic has been open since May 2021. Emily Kohler, the clinical manager, said she had no figures on volume, but said new patients are contacting the clinic or being referred daily. The clinic features specialists in areas including the lungs, the heart, the kidneys, mental health and physical and occupational therapy.
Kohler says demand for the services has led to an expansion of staff and programs, including the addition of nurse navigators who can help patients while waiting to see a specialist. An online support group draws 5-10 people to monthly sessions, she says.
“We’re just seeing a lot of patients who are not returning to their pre-COVID levels, and it’s really debilitating their lives,” she says.
Kohler says the single most common aid among clinic patients is intense fatigue. Patients also commonly suffer from continuing coughing and shortness of breath, and loss of taste and smell.
She says the fatigue can be overwhelming. “There are patients who have not been able to work because even doing simple housework exhausts them,” she says.
The fatigue and its impact on peoples’ ability to function can lead to mental health and emotional problems, Kohler says.
On the advice of the WellSpan clinic, Myers has been on short-term disability for about two months.
“I’m not the type to sit around. So for me this has been a massive adjustment. It’s been frustrating. It’s been depressing,” he says.
Much remains unknown about long-COVID. In general, it’s usually not life-threatening. Most people eventually return to feeling normal, although sometimes not for a year or more. Some have developed problems such as heart or kidney failure, and a few have needed lung transplants.
Doctors also have noticed a connection between COVID-19 and the onset of diabetes. As a result, experts predict long-COVID will result in significant health care and disability costs for the United States, with long-COVID expenses possibly making up 30% of the overall pandemic cost.
Doctors remain uncertain about the exact causes of long-COVID. Possibilities include damage to organs from the virus, damage from the immune system attacking and inflaming various parts of the body as it fights the virus, and virus remnants remaining in the body. Beyond that, the powerful drugs including sedatives given to severely-ill COVID-19 patients, and treatments such as being on a ventilator, can also produce lasting problems.
The likelihood of severe long-COVID symptoms seems to correlate with how sick the person was from COVID-19, with problems more common among people who were hospitalized, and most common among people who needed intensive care.
However, emerging research is showing even people who had no initial COVID-19 symptoms sometimes can develop long-COVID. New studies are also finding that COVID-19 vaccine, while highly effective at preventing severe illness and death, doesn’t prevent long-COVID to the extent that doctors originally expected.
Myers is an Army veteran and used to work in construction. He’s now the IT director and director of business development for a group of car dealerships. He says he’s not a “gym rat,” but always considered himself reasonably fit and healthy. He quit smoking more than 20 years ago and had no risk factors that made him especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
At the time his severe symptoms returned in January, he was feeling extra stress due to business expansion at work and believes that may have played a role in his symptoms flaring up.
The long-COVID symptoms include shortness of breath that can force him to pause while climbing a few flights of stairs. His joints ache. After work, he felt the need to collapse, unable to deal with much else.
“I’m 43 years old and I felt like I’m 60,” he says.
When his home septic system developed an expensive malfunction, he found himself straining to figure out how to deal with it. He felt overwhelmed by what used to be routine problems, such as the broken faucet.
One of his most alarming symptoms involves his heart rate and blood pressure, which were previously normal. “I can sit in a chair and not be doing anything and my heart rate can be at 95 and my blood pressure through the roof and I can hear the blood pumping in my ears,” he says. He recently began wearing a heart monitor which doctors hope will them better understand his heart palpitations.
Myers says he was impressed by the WellSpan clinic, especially after Dr. Luminita Tudor, who heads the clinic, spent about two hours discussing his test results and long-COVID. It was a great relief to get an explanation for his symptoms and learn others at the clinic are dealing with similar things, he says.
“I felt like my mind was going crazy and my body was falling apart,” he says.
At first he was “skeptical” about some of the therapies recommended for him.
For example, he couldn’t understand the need for speech therapy, given he wasn’t slurring or having trouble forming words. But it turns out the therapy focuses on brain impacts related to COVID-19 and involves exercises intended to improve his mental sharpness, which in turn helps with speech. He says it has made a big difference in reducing the brain fog and raising his mental sharpness to a level that’s comparable to before he got COVID-19.
Occupational therapy has eliminated the problem of his eyes going out of sync. He’ll soon begin pulmonary therapy, which he says wasn’t immediately available because of high demand at the clinic.
He takes medication for nerve pain and uses two inhalers, including one he uses each day and one in case of a breathing emergency.
He was told he might be able to return to work at the end of June, although maybe only part time at first.
At the request of the clinic, Myers has been keeping a journal tracking his activities and the impact on his energy and fatigue. He forwards weekly results to the clinic, which is helping him understand how to save his energy for the most important things and avoid becoming excessively tired.
He says the clinic taught him the concept of energy “spoons,” which is used by people with chronic medical conditions that limit their energy. It involves the idea that people have a limited number of daily “spoons” of energy. If they use too many spoons in a day, it subtracts from the number available the next day.
Myers says his experience with long-COVID has proven that. For example, he regularly push mows his half-acre lawn, and now usually stops halfway and finishes the next day. Otherwise, he can tax himself so much it’s hard to even brush his teeth.
In general, he’s found that long-COVID can’t be overcome with willpower or trying to ignore it.
“You can’t just try and do things, because it will kick you right back on your butt,” he says. “If you push yourself, you’re not going to be able to just get through it, because it’s going to make you tired and it’s going to worsen certain symptoms.”
READ MORE FROM PENNLIVE:
How long does COVID-19 vaccine protection last? Penn State College of Medicine sheds light on crucial question
Pfizer submits its COVID-19 shot for children under 5 to FDA for approval