I am a rehabilitation medicine doctor. I take care of people with disabilities and chronic conditions.
Like hundreds of millions of people around the world, I also got COVID-19 last year. I was lucky to have a mild case that seemed to last about 10 days — but then I struggled with long-term symptoms for many months.
Like many people who contract an illness, I tried to push return to normal life as quickly as possible. (This was before we had much understanding of COVID’s numerous, variable long-term effects.) After seeming to recover from the initial infection, I began to experience headaches like never before, sleeplessness, muscle aches, nerve pains in my legs and fatigue. I tried to ignore these symptoms, but when that didn’t work, I used my medical training to rehabilitate myself. I focused on getting adequate sleep, adjusting my diet and lifestyle to reduce inflammation and support my immune system, reduced stress and focused on a gradual return to restorative exercise to help my recovery.
The experience became invaluable as I and several UW Medicine colleagues started a post-COVID clinic to help people recover from the persistent disease.
Over the last year, our clinic has seen thousands of patients with severe and disabling symptoms. Some were hospitalized for a long time, but most had mild infections initially. These people are relatively young and healthy; some are even marathon runners and professional athletes.
These days we are also seeing previously healthy teens and young adults — a demographic once thought to be safe from COVID. But many got infected and are still battling its lingering effects. Many can’t yet return to work or have needed to reduce their work schedules due to these symptoms. Many face financial ruin from the loss of income combined with extraordinary health care expenses. They are emotionally drained and desperate for help.
We clinicians also are recognizing that, while COVID-19 has consumed our energy for the past 16 months, many people with conventional chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes are in worse shape today because they’ve avoided coming to the hospital out of fear. These people need care, too.
In parallel, we have seen an unprecedented loss of U.S. health care workers. Nursing shortages are extreme and clinicians are leaving the profession in droves. Suicide rates across the U.S. continue to rise and doctors and health care workers have suicide rates double the national average. Rates of depression, anxiety and burnout among health care workers have increased substantially during the pandemic. COVID-19 has left us collectively exhausted and overworked.
Research has helped us identify some risk factors for developing COVID-19 that is severe or fatal. We know that old age and specific underlying conditions create higher risk for dying of COVID-19. But we don’t yet understand what puts people at risk for developing the lingering symptoms of “long COVID.” The single biggest predictor of experiencing long-term symptoms is simply contracting the illness.
Despite many unknowns, we know with certainty that masks and vaccines overwhelmingly prevent people from getting COVID-19. Remarkably, millions of people remain mask-resistant and about half of the U.S. population is still unvaccinated despite vaccines’ widespread availability.
Unfortunately, the proven-effective strategies that prevent the spread of a terrible disease have become politicized in the United States. In communities across America, naysayers and doubters who hold positions of public trust have scoffed at scientific findings and mortality statistics, telling audiences that their rights are being infringed upon.
As a doctor and a public health professional and someone who has experienced long COVID, I believe that we are watching a great tragedy unfold. Today, parts of the country where people have avoided vaccines are being overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19’s delta variant. It will get substantially worse if we cannot quickly raise vaccination rates in the U.S. and across the world.
My hope is that we can disentangle COVID-19 from politics and collectively recognize our great opportunity here in the United States: Everyone who is eligible to receive a COVID vaccine can get one. It is the best way to protect the one group not yet eligible to be vaccinated: children.