When confronted with the number of Americans who have died from COVID-19 (about 170,000 to date), President Donald Trump cites the high survival rate. Yet local coronavirus victims say they may have survived, but they are grappling with serious health effects.
“We have tested over 40 million people,” Trump said on July 4. “By so doing, we show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless.”
The president is mostly correct. Health officials say that between 96 to 98% of people who’ve contracted the new coronavirus do indeed survive.
However, the “totally harmless” part of Trump’s equation is way off-base. The research is ongoing but recent data indicates that many COVID-19 survivors are still grappling with a host of debilitating problems long after they’ve gotten over the initial illness. Lingering conditions can include heart, lung, kidney and brain damage, blood clotting and ongoing acute respiratory distress.
Elmer (El) Covington, 52, of University City fits the description of what doctors refer to as “long-haulers” – survivors who still experience mental or physical problems after fighting off an acute new coronavirus infection.
Covington contracted COVID-19 in early March. He said he was adhering to health guidelines but, unfortunately, a visit to his cousin’s house proved life-threatening. Covington didn’t know his cousin was infected at the time, but a few days after the visit he started feeling fatigued and had bouts of diarrhea. One day while in the restroom, he passed out. Because he had no fever, he said doctors at St. Mary’s Hospital didn’t think it necessary to test him.
In late March, however, Covington found himself in an ambulance on the way to Barnes-Jewish Hospital where he was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Covington, who suffers from diabetes and hypertension, developed pneumonia, respiratory failure, acute kidney failure and septic shock. He spent a week, unconscious on a ventilator. The outlook for his survival was grim. A visit from his deceased mother, he said, gave him the strength and stamina to fight back.
“It was the weirdest thing,” Covington recalled. “All of a sudden, my mother appeared in this blue dress wearing a Tina Turner wig. I heard her say, ‘You gonna let this thing kill you? Get up!’”
Whether it was a before-death revelation or a hallucination, Covington got up and, he said, to the amazement of hospital staffers, he started to heal. But now, 30 pounds lighter and four months after his hospital release, Covington is still not 100 percent recovered.
“I’m still struggling,” he said. “I still get winded. My anxiety is way up, and my memory is foggy.”
Researchers are still trying to figure out why the new coronavirus affects the body differently from other viruses. However, they surmise that what’s known as “brain fog” may be related to damaged brain cells, inflammation in the brain or impaired blood flow. One peer-reviewed Harvard University study showed that as many as a third of hospitalized COVID-19 patients experience forms of delirium or severe levels of confusion.
Doctors have also determined that even patients who’ve recovered from mild cases of the virus have trouble shaking lingering symptoms.
Elvin Jon Chambers, 41, a Jennings resident, fits that category. If not for a mandatory fever test at Washington University, where he works as a business operations facilitator, he may have never known he had COVID-19. Even after he tested positive, Chambers’ only symptoms were a low-grade fever, loss of taste and smell, and cold-like feelings for about a week. His biggest challenges, he said, were isolation from his family and “the unknowns” of the disease.
“I didn’t know where it was going to go or how it was going to affect my wife and daughter,” he said. “It was a scary feeling being isolated not knowing whether you were going to live or die.”
Chambers still has trouble tasting food and smelling things. Loss of smell and taste is more severe in Covid-19 patients, especially in mild or moderate cases, than in patients with common colds researchers believe. That could be due to the effect the coronavirus has on the brain and nervous system.
Still, Chambers said he’s grateful that his brush with the coronavirus was short term with few lingering complications.
After almost 100 days fighting the virus and its aftereffects, Jana M. Gamble, 33, wishes she were as lucky as survivors like Elvin Chambers.
Gamble was convinced that she had contracted COVID-19 when she lost her sense of taste and smell shortly after Mother’s Day. Several tests later (her first was nonconclusive), her fears were confirmed. She has no idea how she got infected, even though her 15-year-old daughter was hospitalized for 13 days in January with near-acute kidney failure.
Although Gamble didn’t know then if it was COVID or not, her daughter and her younger son have since tested positive. Other than her son’s ear infections, Gamble said both kids have been completely asymptomatic.
Gamble is a City of St. Louis resident and vice president of the Michael Brown Chosen for Change Foundation. From bed she coordinated the organization’s events while grappling with a loss of appetite (she lost 14 pounds in seven days), fatigue, chills, “horrible migraines,” heart palpitations and what she described as a “heavy weight” on her chest.
Researchers are monitoring COVID-related heart damage. Two German studies published in the journal JAMA Cardiology, reported that three-quarters of patients have heart damage months after recovering from the coronavirus. Although researchers know the virus can harm the heart, they have yet to determine if it infects heart muscle cells or if overly active immune systems are attacking healthy heart tissue.
Both Covington and Gamble are experiencing high levels of post COVID-related anxiety. This, too, has doctors concerned.
“The link between unemployment, economic shock and suicide is highly replicated in population health,” said Roger S. McIntyre, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto.
McIntyre, whose research has been published in Psychiatry Research and World Psychiatry, added, “The anxiety of the virus with the economic shock, along with the physical distancing, is an unprecedented assault on mental health.”
Covington, Chambers and Gamble are among the lucky 96-to-98% of people who have escaped death from COVID-19. Each has serious issues with people who aren’t taking the coronavirus threat seriously. They have even less tolerance for the president’s ill-formed declaration about survivors’ recovery.
Although research is ongoing, it’s definitely not “totally harmless.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.
Chambers still has trouble tasting food and smelling
things. Loss of smell and taste
is more severe in Covid-19 patients, especially in mild or moderate cases, than in patients with common colds researchers
believe. That could be due to the effect the
coronavirus has on the brain and nervous system.
Still, Chambers said he’s grateful that his brush
with the coronavirus was short term with few lingering complications.