Now, more than four months in, these ongoing symptoms have also resulted in feelings of guilt. I still cannot be an equal partner in our household. I still cannot be active with my kids. I still cannot work, leaving my colleagues in the emergency department to work mandatory overtime at a moment when every shift is so stressful as to push emergency physicians to the precipice of burnout. Complicating this is that I appear healthy, as do many with long COVID. When I meet someone outside, they often assume I am better as they remark how good I look, only for me to explain that the short walk I am taking is all the exertion I can muster for the day.
Symptoms of long COVID vary widely and can affect almost every system in the body. While many long COVID patients experience the same symptoms I do, others suffer with cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and more. Some people have one or two of these that linger, others have so many that they are unable to return to work or normal activities. Frustratingly, treatment for these symptoms is an exercise in trial-and-error, with the National Institutes of Health and others only just beginning to call for research on understanding the many forms of long COVID and how to treat them.
So, what are the chances you’ll end up like me? To be sure, reports vary about how many people with COVID-19 go on to have long COVID, but it is clear that the number is significantly higher than other viruses and could be as high as 1 in 3. Even using a more conservative estimate of 10% means that of Georgia’s 597,208 confirmed COVID cases, almost 60,000 people don’t get better within 3 to 4 weeks. Could you afford to be out of work that long? How would that affect your colleagues and your family?
I know that 2020 was a long and difficult year. I know that we all want to be with friends and family, especially coming into a new year. And, yet, I ask you to please join my call to action. The task is simple: mask up, stay physically distant, and help Georgia get through this winter. The vaccine that we’ve waited for is finally coming, but it might not make a difference if you’re already disabled from long COVID.
Jeffrey N. Siegelman, M.D., is an associate professor of emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and works as an emergency physician at Grady Memorial Hospital.