In-Depth: Long haulers mark 2 years of COVID-19 pandemic

Research has found treatment, but not a cure
Posted at 6:12 AM, Mar 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-14 09:57:53-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - For millions of Americans, the two-year mark of the coronavirus pandemic is not an anniversary to celebrate. It's a reminder of how long they've been fighting to regain some sense of normalcy in their lives.

"It was frustrating," says San Marcos resident Jennica Harris. She's been fighting long COVID since April 2020. "I couldn't be myself. I couldn't take care of my kids alone. I couldn't do things that I've done before."

The CDC estimates anywhere from 10-30% of people who are infected with COVID will have some form of long COVID, where symptoms persist for weeks, months, or in some cases, years after the infection goes away.

With nearly 80 million Americans getting infected over the last two years, that means anywhere from 8-24 million people in the U.S. are dealing with long COVID.

"I used to tell patients long COVID can last many many months," says Dr. Lucy Horton. "But now I say that it can last many months to even years."

Dr. Horton runs the long COVID clinic at UC San Diego Health. They were one of the first in the nation dedicated to helping people recover from long COVID symptoms.

"We've learned a lot in the past 18 months," says Dr. Horton. "But, compared to what we know about acute COVID, we still are really far behind."

Harris' case typifies the mystery long COVID brought to the pandemic, leaving doctors and patients scrambling for answers.

When ABC 10News first spoke with her in December 2020, she had already been dealing with symptoms for nearly a year.

"Here I am [with] this slew of doctors that I have to go see and try to figure out why my heart rate is so high. I can't move from the couch, and I can't breathe two months after, three months, and four months after [getting COVID-19]," she told ABC10 News.

Now, more than a year later, she says she's "95%" back to normal.

"I'd say about a year and a half post-COVID is when I really started to see that turn, and it was me again," she says.

In that time, Jennica saw countless doctors, went through more than a dozen prescriptions, did physical therapy, and enrolled in eight scientific studies to find the right combination of medicine and treatment to get her life back.

She still carries a small bag of inhalers, blood pressure monitors, and an oxygen meter everywhere she goes.

"These things keep me alive," she says. "This puts breath in my lungs, and it helps me be a parent to my children."

While Harris has found a "new normal," millions of others still struggle to get by.

Encinitas resident Andrew Maetze used to ride his bike up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. But he got COVID-19 in December 2019. At the time, he thought it was just a bad flu. Since then, he's been in and out of hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Even now, more than two years later, he's on a breathing tube.

"I can't walk," he told ABC 10News. "I can barely roll around the bed. Can't hardly feed myself."

In addition to his fight against the impacts of long COVID, Maetze says he's also been battling the medical system. At first, many of his doctors didn't know about long COVID.

"I had to educate my doctors and nurses along the way," says Maetze.

He found support from online groups like Survivor Corps. Hearing stories of other people facing similar struggles helped Maetze know he wasn't alone.

"The medical system doesn't provide that psychological counseling that really should be gone with this," he says.

New research comes out almost every month with possible ways to treat long COVID symptoms. But Dr. Horton says it's difficult because every patient's symptoms are unique.

"I certainly wish there was a kind of magic bullet for long COVID But right now, there isn't anything, and I'm not aware of anything on the horizon," says Dr. Horton.

In the meantime, patients like Jennica, Andrew, and millions of others say they'll continue to fight. They hope sharing their story will give the rest of the world a better understanding of what long COVID patients deal with.

"For some people, it goes away," says Maetze. "But not all of us. It just doesn't go away."

"Just have empathy," says Harris. "We're all trying our best."