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Long-haulers or lifers: How post-acute COVID syndrome affects patients

COVID-19 -- it’s a virus that takes your breath away. Initially thought to be a disease that impacts the elderly, now, 40- and 50-year-olds who suffered mild symptoms are showing up at the doctor’s office with debilitating symptoms.

It’s officially called post-acute COVID syndrome. And these COVID long-haulers fear they may never get better.

Jeff Engman likes to work hard and play hard.

Then, just as he started his latest project, this 58-year-old was hit hard by COVID.

“The fatigue, I was really drained and, you know, could hardly get out of bed,” explained Engman.

After a few weeks, Engman recovered. Then “COVID caused some abscesses in my lungs,” Engman said.

Ten months later, Engman, like some people diagnosed with COVID, is still dealing with COVID brain fog, weakness, extreme fatigue, migraines, mini-strokes, heart issues, shortness of breath, fever, coughs, body aches, stiff joints and balance issues. The CDC reports up to 35% of those infected endure symptoms lasting beyond three weeks.

“These are totally healthy people,” shared Dr. Dixie Harris, pulmonologist with Intermountain Healthcare Pulmonary and Critical Care.

One theory: COVID kicks the immune system into overdrive and it stays in overdrive even after the virus is gone, damaging other organs. The big question: How long will the symptoms last?

“I don’t know how long these will last. I typically am seeing is they’re slowly getting better. I haven’t seen anybody plateau and not improve yet,” Harris said.

As for Engman, 10 months later, he says he has good and bad days.

“It’s not going away like I thought it would. You kind of wonder if you’re, you know, are you ever going to get better?” Engman said.

In autopsy reports of COVID patients, doctors are finding damage to not just the lungs, but the heart, brain, kidney and liver, suggesting that COVID is much more than a respiratory disease.

Mount Sinai has opened a center for post-COVID in New York with 40 doctors dedicated to studying and treating long-haulers. They are modeling the center after what they did for first responders after 911, treating a large group of people after a catastrophic event, but they say this is on a much larger scale.