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I met a friend for lunch recently, one of my first New York social outings since Covid-19 forced the world into solitude 15 months ago. We laughed and shared a bottle of prosecco. We didn’t wear masks. We hugged. Twice. As we offered each other hearty goodbyes after our three-hour gabfest, a woman remarked as she passed us on the street, “It is so good to see people happy again.”
Signs are everywhere that normal life, or whatever will pass for it in a postpandemic world, is re-emerging. But for the tens of thousands of people who contracted the coronavirus and have continued to have symptoms, the euphoria is short-lived. In April 2020 I was diagnosed with Covid-19 and, for nearly 10 months, was subject to chest pain, fatigue, fever, night sweats and other maladies that continued long after the virus left my body. I wrote about the experience for The Times Magazine earlier this year, wondering if I would ever feel like myself again.
Happily, I seem to be back to normal. But I was uneasy when I got my second vaccination shot three weeks ago, worried about how my body would respond. I sobbed as the nurse stabbed me with a syringe; the next day I curled up in a ball on my bed, overwhelmed with chills and fever. Researchers suggest that the vaccine may help the immune system fight off any lingering residual virus. But the truth is there is still so much we don’t know about Covid.
This month a study tracking the health insurance records of nearly two million people in the United States who contracted the coronavirus last year found that almost one-quarter of them — 23 percent — sought medical treatment for new conditions, including nerve and muscle pain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and fatigue. People of all ages were affected, including children, and problems occurred even among those people who showed no symptoms from the virus.
Doctors are only beginning to study the virus’s long-term effects. In February, the National Institutes of Health announced a $1.15 billion initiative to identify the causes of long Covid, as well as protocols to prevent and treat individuals whose symptoms persist. Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the N.I.H., said then that given the number of individuals who had been infected, “the public health impact could be profound.”
I got a glimpse of this while writing about my experience. And what I saw was a community in pain. Emails poured in from readers who had long Covid or knew relatives who suffered and didn’t know how to help. “Your incredibly factual and personal story truly hit like a sledgehammer,” one reader wrote. Another reader said, “I sometimes feel so alone in it, and seeing your piece made me feel seen, understood and less alone.”
The article was read by more than half a million online readers in the first week alone, stretching from Tanzania to France, Japan, Brazil, India and beyond. I got calls and emails from doctors who circulated it among their patients. It was cited as essential reading at a meeting of medical professionals at Stanford University’s Medical Department. This awareness was a boon for long-Covid sufferers who worried that people regarded their seemingly random symptoms as psychological, not physiological.
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“I hope that your article helps doctors know we are not ‘in our heads’ with anxiety alone,” one reader wrote.
People emailed me lots of advice. I was told to stop eating sugar, adopt a gluten-free diet and give up dairy products. One reader suggested acupuncture. Another recommended a vitamin cocktail with D and zinc, while others promoted breathing exercises and homeopathic medicine. Eliminating unnecessarily stressful situations made me feel better. But maybe that would have been helpful whether I had Covid or not. In this way, the virus is a shrewd teacher.
What I find most troubling, though, is the helplessness that so many people still feel more than a year later as the country seems to be joyfully emerging from its coronavirus slumber. One man wrote me a letter in January about his daughter who got sick last summer and found little comfort. I wrote her an email (as I did the more than 200 readers who contacted me) and wished her a speedy recovery. When I emailed her father last month to see how the family was faring, he said little had improved.
“She voices a sense of hopelessness, which is so heartbreaking to us,” he wrote.
It’s heartbreaking to me too. I’m grateful to be hugging friends and having long lunches. But for too many others, the pain endures.