For three months after his COVID-19 infection, Dr. Brad Hardy struggled mightily to take his trash bin up and down a steep hill, the chest pain was so intense.
“If I wasn’t 36 years of age, I would have questioned if I was actively having a heart attack,” said Hardy, a family medicine physician at Warren Clinic. “It was very unsettling.”
Hardy conveyed his own experience with long COVID on Tuesday during Saint Francis Health System’s weekly media briefing. COVID symptoms lingering or manifesting after an infection aren’t uncommon, and Hardy characterized this aspect of the disease as “kind of forgotten” amid the hospitalizations and deaths.
He said long COVID is a broad range of physical or mental ailments that develop during or after infection and occur for at least four weeks after diagnosis or symptoms — also not otherwise medically explained. It’s nearly impossible to identify who will suffer long COVID, he said, but there is an increasing prevalence with age and less occurrence among younger patients who have fewer comorbidities.
“Fortunately most people who catch COVID-19 won’t become severely ill and get better relatively quickly,” Hardy said. “However, significant numbers of patients do suffer some long-term health problems after recovering from the original infection.”
An analysis of research published before January identified more than 50 long-term effects of COVID-19. The analysis, published in August in Nature, found the five most common symptoms were fatigue (58%), headache (44%), attention disorder (27%), hair loss (25%) and difficulty breathing (24%).
A research study out of China found that 68% of COVID survivors had at least one residual symptom six months later, which decreased to 49% after 12 months. The study comprised almost 1,300 COVID patients who had been discharged from a hospital in Wuhan from January to May 2020.
The study’s authors concluded that most survivors had a “good physical and functional recovery” at their one-year follow-up visit but that the health status was still lower than the control population. The results were published August in The Lancet.
Experts in Oklahoma have said that in general terms up to 20% to 30% develop long COVID symptoms.
Hardy emphasized the psychological manifestations of long COVID, such as anxiety, depression and brain fog.
Hardy said he has about five or six patients who have had to resign from jobs or move forward with long-term disability related to the neurocognitive component.
“These were highly functioning individuals,” Hardy said. “One gentleman that I’m thinking of who is in his mid-40s and was a small business owner ... had to essentially take a step back and tap his VP to step into his shoes because he was unable to perform his duties.”
Unfortunately, Hardy said, the pathology of long COVID isn’t understood and is incredibly difficult to unravel. He said a hypothesis is the infection in some patients pushes the immune system into overdrive, attacking not just the virus but their own tissues.
There is only so much physicians can do for long COVID, Hardy said. Some infectious disease doctors in the Tulsa community are treating it with IV infusions or vitamins, he said.
“I’m not really seeing medical literature to support that, but people are kind of grasping at straws wanting to get their quality of life back and return to their activities and daily living,” Hardy said. “The depression that goes along with this is definitely something that we can help, and I ask patients to reach out sooner than later if they start to fall into a depression.”
July 2021 video with Dr. Brad Hardy