‘I’m still suffering’: Some patients with mild COVID-19 have health issues months later

A patient's foot is pictured as they lay in bed in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital in Surrey, B.C., Friday, June 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

When she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in December 2020, Ali Janhsen was scared, but not too sick.

“I felt like I had a mild flu,” she said.

But although those flu-like symptoms improved after about a month, the 28-year-old receptionist from Edmonton didn’t really get better.

“I am still suffering chest pain and I am six months out,” she said. “It feels like I am constantly having a heart attack but all [test] results are normal.”
Ali Janhsen, 28, from Edmonton, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in December 2020 and still suffers symptoms six months later.
Ali Janhsen, 28, from Edmonton, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in December 2020 and still suffers symptoms six months later. Courtesy, Ali Janhsen

“It’s hard to hold a long conversation; stairs cause my heart to race; running causes me to almost pass out; the migraines are unexplainable,” she said.

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Janhsen said she can’t work more than a four-hour shift, and her previously mild asthma has gotten worse, to the point where she is taking a steroid inhaler three times a day and still often has to use her rescue inhaler.

Jahnsen isn’t the only one suffering long-term effects from COVID-19.

According to a new study, almost one-quarter of COVID-19 patients report new health issues months after they have supposedly recovered from the disease.

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The study, published as a white paper by the health research nonprofit FAIR Health, analyzed health insurance data for nearly two million COVID-19 patients in the U.S. It found that 23 per cent of patients reported new health conditions – that they didn’t have before their bout with COVID-19 – a month or more after their diagnosis.

These most common post-COVID health conditions included fatigue, pain, breathing difficulties and hypertension.

The findings, which were not peer-reviewed, echo previous research on “long COVID” – published in the journal Nature in April. That research found that beyond the first 30 days of being diagnosed, people with COVID-19 had higher rates of death and used more medical resources like pain medication and antidepressants, and showed “a substantial burden of health loss.”

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The FAIR Health study found these effects even among people who had milder cases of COVID-19, who weren’t hospitalized, or who were asymptomatic, though people who had been in hospital tended to be more likely to have long-term effects.

Dr. Alexandra Rendely, a physician at the Toronto Rehab Institute, part of the University Health Network, works with former COVID-19 patients in her rehabilitation clinic. Some of her patients were previously hospitalized and some weren’t, she said, but there are many people who had “recovered” from COVID-19 who still have ongoing issues.

“We look at how their bones, muscles and joints are moving and we are seeing there is some pain, some joint pain and general overwhelming fatigue that’s causing difficulty moving the body in the same way,” she said. She is also seeing patients with higher heart rates, even when at rest, or being discharged from hospital but still needing to use supplementary oxygen at home.

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When it comes to the brain, she said, doctors are noticing increased depression and anxiety in these patients, as well as cognitive difficulties.

“We’re seeing cognitive changes so patients are more forgetful, having concentration difficulties, having difficulties paying attention or switching tasks. And that can be quite hard for those that are trying to return to work,” she said.

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While she questions how well U.S. medical insurance data really demonstrates that a patient developed a new condition post-COVID, saying it’s possible they just weren’t properly diagnosed beforehand, she does think the study points to some useful questions for further research.

“That includes, what is happening when you get COVID-19 infection?” she said. “There is some speculation, some research going on already that there is widespread inflammation throughout the body, and that’s what is affecting so many organ systems.”

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“Overall, I think the message is that we do need to be working to better understand the pathophysiology of this virus.”

Janhsen also believes that the health care system needs to pay more attention to people suffering long-term effects from COVID-19.

“Do tests like blood work, rule out blood clots, rule out heart disease, rule out lung disease,” she said. “Make sure the lungs and heart are functioning properly so more people don’t die long after COVID has attacked the first time.”

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