After a couple of hours of reading, Brittany Stephenson shut her book and headed for the stairs. Halfway up the steps, dizziness came over Stephenson, and her heart began pounding.
She sat down to rest – and fainted soon after.
Stephenson’s son, who was home during the incident, raced her to the emergency room. Doctors performed an EKG, which showed an accelerated heart rate but normal rhythm. An X-ray and CT scan of the chest, along with blood work, followed, all showing normal results.
At this point, doctors told Stephenson that the likely cause of her symptoms is long COVID, a condition characterized by persistent symptoms weeks or months after initial the infection of the COVID-19 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Stephenson followed up with her primary care physician, who advised Stephenson to moderate activity and return to the ER if similar symptoms manifested again.
A couple of weeks later, Stephenson fainted again and returned to the ER.
The ER would admit Stephenson two additional times after she exhibited severe gastrointestinal issues.
Stephenson, an English professor at Salt Lake Community College, tested positive for COVID-19 in late December.
“It’s very frightening to receive a positive COVID test,” she said. “Some people are asymptomatic, and others are placed on a ventilator within a few days.”
Initial symptoms were in line with common traits of COVID-19 infection, which included congestion, fever and body aches. Following the 14-day isolation period, however, fatigue prevented Stephenson from walking further than the distance of a few houses on her block.
“I had to sit down, rest and come back,” she said of a short walk attempted in mid-January. “It wiped me out for the whole day.”
Stephenson experienced her first admission to the ER a couple of days later.
Bernice Olivas, friend of Stephenson and English assistant professor at SLCC, is also experiencing long COVID after more than a year. After Olivas overexerted herself during a home flooding incident in April 2020, what felt like a cold developed into a high fever and she began to struggle with breathing.
Doctors in the ER diagnosed Olivas with COVID-19 as well as double pneumonia and sent her home with oxygen equipment, which she needed for almost a year.
“My lungs were severely affected and are still not at full capacity,” Olivas said. “I still struggle with stairs or any form of incline.”
According to the CDC, it is currently difficult to estimate the prevalence of long COVID. However, a recent study by nonprofit FAIR Health found nearly a quarter of examined COVID-19 patients – roughly 456,000 out of almost 2 million individuals – sought care for new medical issues at least one month after their diagnosis.
Post-COVID conditions were found to a greater extent in patients who had more severe cases of COVID-19, but patients whose cases lacked symptoms also made up a sizeable percentage. Among asymptomatic patients, for example, 19 percent experienced post-COVID conditions.
Common post-COVID conditions across all ages include pain, breathing difficulties, hyperlipidemia, malaise and fatigue, and hypertension.
Two members of Congress reintroduced the COVID-19 Long Haulers Act in April. The bill would authorize $30 million for research of long COVID. Rep. Blake Moore recently co-sponsored the bill.
“We have far too many long haulers in Utah and across the U.S.,” Moore said in an interview for KUTV. “They’ve been waiting for over a year to get answers to this illness.”
In June, the CDC released guidelines for healthcare providers on how to evaluate and care for patients experiencing long COVID. The post notes that understanding of post-COVID conditions remains incomplete and guidance is likely to change as research progresses.
On June 1, University of Utah Health opened a post-COVID-19 care clinic located at University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. It is the first clinic of its kind in the state.
For Stephenson and Olivas, the opening of the clinic signifies a push by the broader health community to understand long COVID and bring relief to individuals experiencing post-COVID conditions.
Clinicians along with medical director of the clinic, Jeanette Brown, coordinate with physicians and practitioners across 10 specialties, which include cardiology, neurology and endocrinology, among others.
“I’ve heard from a lot of long-hauler patients that they want care from someone who will listen to them and take them seriously,” Brown said in a post for U of U Health. “It’s going to allow us to be really directed and efficient, hopefully leading to better care for these long-term COVID patients.”
In addition to patient care, the clinic is conducting research on the long-term effects of COVID-19 in hopes of acquiring better treatments.
“I’m hopeful for myself and other long haulers that science will come through,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson and Olivas continue to teach classes online but hope to return to the classroom sometime in 2022. Working with their respective health care providers, Stephenson and Olivas noted improvement but acknowledged that wellness is not yet what it was prior to COVID-19.
“If I’m comparing myself to where I was in January, I feel huge improvements – and hopeful,” Stephenson said. “But if I compare myself to pre-COVID, I still feel severely limited.”
Following full vaccinations, Stephenson and Olivas adopted a social exercise to interact in person and aid the recovery process. The exercise consists of half-laps around a park and resting, coupled with the mobile app “Pokémon Go”.
“It was a huge social outing for the both of us,” Stephenson said.
Olivas agreed and emphasized the impact of the activity on their well-being.
“If we don’t get out and make ourselves move more, this isn’t going to get better,” Olivas said. “Walking around the park – talking about this and that while playing Pokémon – is a really good way for us to keep our bodies going and connect with something we both enjoy.”
Stephenson said the recovery process has been difficult but is not discouraged.
“I have to accept where I am now and keep moving forward.”