LIMA — Recovery from COVID-19 may take weeks or even months for some patients as the disease prompts secondary infections, respiratory failure, blood clotting and persistent shortness of breath.
“It took me probably a good six weeks to be able to start getting some of the stamina back,” said Max Long, 60, a Bath Township resident who was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March.
Long was admitted to Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center with pneumonia about two weeks after he learned of his COVID-19 diagnosis, he said. He was released four days later, but the shortness of breath, coughing and fatigue persisted for weeks.
Long found himself taking breaks often: while at the grocery store; mowing his lawn; or even holding a conversation, as simple tasks were made difficult by the shortness of breath and frequent coughing.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “When you have the flu, you know you have the flu, and in three days or whatever, you’re better and you move on. This was just so constant the whole time.”
A recent study of COVID-19 patients who were discharged from the hospital in Italy suggests that people who suffer more serious forms of the disease may continue to experience symptoms, notably fatigue, chest pain and shortness of breath, for some time after recovery.
Dr. William Cole, an intensive care doctor and ICU director for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center, said a mild case of the disease typically takes a two-week course. Those individuals, who typically recover at home, may still experience fever, fatigue, muscle aches, coughing and shortness of breath while walking.
But critically ill patients, Cole said, may be sick for months.
Some of these severely ill patients are developing secondary infections while their immune systems are suppressed. Others are experiencing blood clots, confusion and respiratory failure.
“The virus can attack any organ in the body,” Cole said.
While the most severe outcomes of COVID-19 correlate with age and underlying health issues, the disease can still afflict serious damage when the patient is young.
Cole has seen otherwise healthy patients in their 30s fall extremely ill, which he says may be related to blood type.
“People with Type A blood seem to be more at-risk of catching the disease and having a more severe form of the disease,” he said. “They found that to be the trend when they had the surge in China and then in Spain and Italy, they found that. And we’re finding that here in the U.S., but we don’t know why that is.”
One of the challenges of understanding the severity of COVID-19 is determining who counts as recovered.
Allen County Public Health, for example, counts individuals whose symptom onset date was at least 21 days prior and who are not deceased toward its presumed recovered cases. That’s the same guidelines used by the Ohio Department of Health on its statistics online. Allen County had 225 of its 356 cases “presumed recovered” as of 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Auglaize County Health Department considers an individual recovered when they have been released from isolation and are fever-free for at least 72 hours without fever-reducing medication, among several other criteria. Auglaize County labeled 88 of its 112 cases recovered on Friday.
Once a person is fever-free for three days, Cole said, they typically clear the infection within another seven days.
But the full course of the disease varies by the severity of symptoms. And critically ill patients who survive may experience longer-term complications.
The state labels 44,101 of its 64,214 cases as of Saturday afternoon as “presumed recovered.”
Kim Lane learned that lesson when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June. After spending a week at the hospital, Lane, 51, was sent home with an oxygen tank.
“My doctor told me that I may be like a COPD patient in that my lungs may be damaged for good,” Lane said during a Facebook Live video made public last month. “But he can’t promise because they’re all still learning about COVID.”
Lane, a traveling phlebotomist in Lima, contracted the virus despite taking extra precautions to avoid it. She wore a mask and gloves to the grocery store; and she spent as much time at home as possible.
The first symptom Lane recalls is a tightness in her chest, which evolved over the next several days into what she describes as the “worst days” of her life. There was the coughing and high fever; the body aches so severe she could hardly move. Lane had trouble sleeping; and she barely ate or drank anything for days because it was so difficult to swallow.
When she learned her diagnosis, Lane said, she thought she might die.
“The only thing I could do was start crying,” she said, “because when you hear that you have COVID, you just start crying, because the very first thing you think about is: I’m going to die. I’m not going to make it through this because I have high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat.”
Lane spent five days treating herself at home before she was admitted to the hospital. By then, she recalls taking about 40 breaths per minute.
“You’re supposed to breathe about 12 a minute,” she said.
She spent about one week at the hospital before going home. Two weeks after her release, Lane said she was feeling better. But she still slept with her oxygen, just in case.