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At least 10% of Vermont COVID cases expected to linger

Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 4:55 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 5, 2022 at 6:34 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - From new cases to cases that persist, thousands of Vermonters suffer from long COVID, even though the syndrome presents differently in every patient.

Most experts say you need to experience persistent symptoms for four weeks to be diagnosed with long COVID. Unfortunately, some of those new cases diagnosed just today will likely be among them.

“It gets kind of scary,” said Willow Hecht of Burlington. “Is this just going to continue for years?”

Hecht, 41, was diagnosed with COVID in February 2021 before she was eligible for the vaccine. She says she experienced nearly every symptom including extreme fatigue, breathing problems and loss of smell for quite some time.

“I was sick for most of March. In April, I felt better. June it hit again and that’s when I reached out to my doctor and he said, ‘Oh man, I’m really sorry. We’re seeing this with people where it lingers or keeps coming back,’” Hecht said.

That’s when she learned she struggles with post-acute COVID syndrome or long COVID.

“I have to sleep all day, feeling terrible, can’t think straight, and it would abruptly stop-- again, for no reason,” Hecht said.

In Hecht’s case, she says she will be randomly be hit with aches, fatigue and brain fog for days at a time. She also still can’t fully smell. She says it affects her work life and social life.

“There’s not much I can do. I just have to go to bed for the rest of the day,” she said.

Hecht says she’s talked to multiple doctors and has even been referred to Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s long COVID clinic, but no one seems to have a quick fix.

“There’s nothing definite yet that’s proven and certainly no treatment,” said Dr. David Kaminsky, a pulmonary and critical care physician at the UVM Medical Center.

Kaminsky says 10%-30% percent of acute COVID patients are thought to develop long COVID.

To date, almost 69,000 Vermonters have had COVID. Kaminsky says at least 10% of them-- that’s 6,800 people-- have long COVID right now or will develop it.

“We’re talking about in many cases young, healthy, vibrant people who are pretty sick with COVID and ordinarily should just get over it just like getting over the flu, and now, they can’t walk, they can’t smell, they can’t think. It’s devastating,” Kaminsky said.

He says word is getting out that long COVID is real and the UVM Medical Center has applied to be part of an extensive research program at the National Institutes of Health, but there are still some question marks.

“With omicron being so prevalent now and delta having been prevalent, I think eventually we’ll start to get data on the patterns of the illness. In other words, how many people recovered from delta and have long COVID and how many people recover from omicron and do. But right now, I’m not aware of anything like that,” Kaminsky said.

He also says people who are more acutely ill in the hospital-- and those who are unvaccinated-- tend to get long COVID more than those who are not, but there are still unknowns with who’s getting it, too.

“As far as predicting any one individual that’s going to get long-term symptoms versus not, I don’t think anyone knows still,” Kaminsky said.

Meanwhile, Hecht is able to work from home. She is now fully vaccinated and hopes her battle with long COVID ends soon.

“I’ve heard some people saying, ‘Oh, I know some people who got it and they didn’t have any symptoms or they were sick for two days and it wasn’t that big of a deal.’ For a lot of people maybe it is like that, but remember, for a lot of people, it isn’t,” she said.

Hecht says she’s found solace in joining online support groups.

Kaminsky says these groups are helpful to see the different manifestations of long COVID. He also says UVMMC has a Zoom support group that anyone can join and they meet monthly.

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