When Maryland resident Russell Frisby was discharged from the hospital in late March after a five-day stay for COVID-19, he wasn't “100 percent,” but he was feeling better. The persistent cough that plagued him for weeks had subsided, and the breathing trouble that initially landed him in a hospital bed had improved.
About two weeks into his recovery, however, “the bottom dropped out” and the serious symptoms returned. The 69-year-old attorney was suddenly unable to do household chores without getting winded. And his asthma, which had always been mild and under control, seemed to be getting worse.
Frisby took a coronavirus test just to be sure he didn't have COVID-19 again. The test was negative. Instead, he learned that his initial battle with the illness was far from over.
Recovery is not immediate for many COVID-19 patients
Frisby is what a growing number of doctors and researchers refer to as a “long-hauler,” or a person who experiences persisting symptoms of COVID-19 long after the infection is defeated. In addition to shortness of breath, long-haulers report extreme fatigue, tachycardia (a racing heart) and cognitive complications such as memory loss and brain fog that interfere with everyday tasks.
For some, these symptoms can last weeks. A July report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 35 percent of adults who had mild cases of COVID-19 still weren't back to their usual state of health two to three weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus. (By comparison, more than 90 percent of people with the flu recover within two weeks of having a positive test result, the report's authors write.)
For others, the syndrome can drag on for months. An Italian study published in JAMA found 87 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had at least one symptom continue two months after the onset of the disease. It's been nearly six months since Frisby's diagnosis, and he is still receiving care for issues related to his coronavirus infection and the lung scarring it caused. His current regimen involves “a more intense asthma treatment” with daily inhalers, weekly allergy shots and lots of rest.