Health experts put more focus on 'Long COVID' and potential future health effects

May 20, 2021

As New York State eases mask wearing guidelines for people vaccinated for COVID, the public is increasingly eager to move on from the pandemic. For most, this will happen. But for many who suffered the effects of coronavirus during the pandemic, they continue to endure health complications months later. And health experts are concerned some will face potential serious problems down the road.

Darren Lisicki, seen with his wife Shannon, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April 2020. He has continued to experience post-COVID symptoms such as shortness of breath and heart palpitations more than a year later.
Credit Provided by Darren Lisicki

Darren Lisicki was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April 2020. He had been feeling symptoms prior to the diagnosis but, he explained, actually received a negative test result which, ironically, allowed him to then be checked out at the hospital. It was then they realized he was indeed infected. 

Prior to his diagnosis, he led an active lifestyle that included long runs, hiking and mountain climbing. When ill with COVID, he experienced shortness of breath, and a constant feeling of pressure on the chest, as if he was always being smothered.

"And there was a period also, at one point, with such a deep comatose state, like I was in and out of lucid consciousness, almost where I would sleep and wake up and not really know where I was," he said. "It was like you're on some kind of anesthetic. It was a tough go."

Weeks, even months later, Lisicki continued to feel symptoms including continued trouble breathing and elevated heart rates, even while resting.

"It's gotten a little bit better since then. But it still keeps you back from a lot of things. My resting heart rate used to be in the upper 50s, low 60s," he said. "Just last night, I'm sitting around doing nothing, it's 115. It really makes for life to be very difficult.”

He calls his cardiologist his "new best friend," and has required more than a dozen medications to aid with his post-COVID symptoms. Those who have continued to feel them for weeks or months after a COVID diagnosis have become known, casually, as patients of "Long COVID" or "long haulers."

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health announced a new initiative to better understand and treat such patients. They refer to it formally as Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-2-CoV Infection.

Dr. Thomas Russo, Professor and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, says the coronavirus affects not only the lungs and heart but blood vessels and other organs, too. In addition to respiratory and pulmonary problems, other post-COVID symptoms have included anxiety, depression, "brain fog," even gastrointestinal and thyroid issues.

“We really have a wide variety and expanding list of symptoms that are occurring,” Dr. Russo said. “And at this point we're sorting out, are these symptoms very specific to COVID? Or are these symptoms a manifestation of anyone that's been ill? It's not uncommon to have, as you recover, a prolonged recovery period. But I think there's a mounting body of evidence suggesting that people with COVID may have this sort of unique post-COVID syndrome.”

Dr. Thomas Russo of the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, seen in a Zoom interview with WBFO.
Credit Zoom/Michael Mroziak

Early in the pandemic, health experts warned that young people were also susceptible to COVID infections. Earlier this month, Nadia Vasquez, a 26-year-old medical student at UB, shared her story during an online forum hosted by the university, which aimed at convincing more young people to get vaccinated.

She explained that weeks and months following her COVID infection, she was continuing to feel adverse effects.

“I was in quarantine for 36 days. I did not start feeling better for three months after my onset of symptoms. I still have headaches. They are sometimes unbearable,” she said. “I still have very high inflammatory cells. And sometimes I randomly turn red and have a fever. I am now an insomniac, and my vision has gotten significantly worse these past six months due to the inflammation caused by COVID-19.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced May 13 that those who are fully vaccinated may enjoy some activities without the need to wear a mask. Lisicki has been fully vaccinated, but admits he still dons his mask when leaving his home. Employed by the Cantalician Center as its Director of Employment Services, he notes many of the people he works with live with disabilities, or are refugees or from other populations considered more at risk with COVID.

He's also concerned for his own health safety, despite his vaccination.

“Like everyone else, I certainly would love for life to get back. I'm a very social person, my wife and I constantly go out. But when I see it, it makes you very nervous. It's akin to maybe having PTSD, where there's a lot of nervousness about going out and doing those things in public,” he said. “And just as dangerous, I feel, is the language that I hear through the Facebook posts or other posts where people just, you know, minimize how impactful this really is and say, ‘Oh, it's nothing, it's not a big deal. If you get it you're gonna survive.’ Yeah, I survived. I mean, I guess I'm a survivor, but I'll tell you it's not the same life I had 14 months ago. It's nowhere near, and for anybody to say it is and then to diminish the impact it's going to have, I'm sorry to hear that but that's not the way it is. It’s absolutely mind or life changing. It's a horrible thing.”

In Dr. Russo's opinion, New York State's reopening and easing of restrictions has been done at an appropriate pace. He renewed his own call to those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so, explaining continued hesitancy poses an ongoing risk for the greater public.

He explained he gets calls from post-COVID patients who still suffer from various symptoms and ask for help. He wishes he could have something specific to offer. But in the meantime, he's pleased the NIH and other researchers are taking the plight of the "long haulers" seriously.

“We don't really know if this will come to fruition, that a number of individuals that are infected may have what we call occult or subclinical damage to a variety of organs, that does not manifest as any symptoms at this time,” Dr. Russo said. “However, over the years, and maybe the decades, if those organs get further damage from other causes, it may result in premature organ failure. So obviously, besides sorting out these ‘long-haulers’ or what I call intermediate symptoms, it's also critical that we follow individuals for a much more prolonged period of time to see if there's potential long-term consequences from this infection as well.”