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Long-haul COVID-19 cases rise as stigma of chronic fatigue taunts


 

When Margot Gage-Witvliet began feeling run down after her family returned from a trip to the Netherlands in late February 2020, she initially chalked up her symptoms to jet lag. Three days later, however, her situation went from concerning to alarming as she struggled to breathe. “It felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest,” she said.

Her husband and daughters also became ill with COVID-19, but Ms. Gage-Witvliet was the only one in her family who didn’t get better. After an early improvement, a rare coronavirus-induced tonic-clonic seizure in early April sent her spiraling back down. Ms. Gage-Witvliet spent the next several weeks in bed with the curtains drawn, unable to tolerate light or sound.

Today, Ms. Gage-Witvliet’s life looks nothing like it did 6 months ago when she first got sick. As one of COVID-19’s so called long-haulers, she continues to struggle with crushing fatigue, brain fog, and headaches – symptoms that worsen when she pushes herself to do more. Across the country, as many as 1 in 10 COVID-19 patients are reporting illnesses that continue for weeks and months after their initial diagnosis. Nearly all report neurologic issues like Ms. Gage-Witvliet, as well as shortness of breath and psychiatric concerns.

For Avindra Nath, MD, a neurologist at the National Institutes of Health, the experience of these long-haul COVID-19 patients feels familiar and reminds him of myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

Dr. Nath has long been interested in the lingering neurologic issues connected to chronic fatigue. An estimated three-quarters of all patients with chronic fatigue syndrome report that their symptoms started after a viral infection, and they suffer unrelenting exhaustion, difficulties regulating pulse and blood pressure, aches and pains, and brain fog. When Dr. Nath first read about the novel coronavirus, he began to worry that the virus would trigger symptoms in a subset of those infected. Hearing about the experiences of long-haulers like Ms. Gage-Witvliet raised his suspicions even more.

Unlike COVID-19 long-haulers, however, many patients with chronic fatigue syndrome go at least a year with these symptoms before receiving a diagnosis, according to a British survey. That means researchers have had few opportunities to study the early stages of the syndrome. “When we see patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis, whatever infection they might have had occurred in the remote past, so there’s no way for us to know how they got infected with it, what the infection was, or what the effects of it were in that early phase. We’re seeing them 2 years afterward,” Dr. Nath said.

Dr. Nath quickly realized that studying patients like Ms. Gage-Witvliet would give physicians and scientists a unique opportunity to understand not only long-term outcomes of COVID-19 infections, but also other postviral syndromes, including chronic fatigue syndrome at their earliest stages. It’s why Dr. Nath has spent the past several months scrambling to launch two NIH studies to examine the phenomenon.

Although Dr. Nath said that the parallels between COVID-19 long-haulers and those with chronic fatigue syndrome are obvious, he cautions against assuming that they are the same phenomenon. Some long-haulers might simply be taking a much slower path to recovery, or they might have a condition that looks similar on the surface but differs from chronic fatigue syndrome on a molecular level. But even if Dr. Nath fails to see links to chronic fatigue syndrome, with more than 92.5 million documented cases of COVID-19 around the world, the work will be relevant to the substantial number of infected individuals who don’t recover quickly.

“With so many people having exposure to the same virus over a similar time period, we really have the opportunity to look at these manifestations and at the very least to understand postviral syndromes,” said Mady Hornig, MD, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, New York.

The origins of chronic fatigue syndrome date back to 1985, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received a request from two physicians – Paul Cheney, MD, and Daniel Peterson, MD – to investigate a mysterious disease outbreak in Nevada. In November 1984, residents in and around the idyllic vacation spot of Incline Village, a small town tucked into the north shore of Lake Tahoe, had begun reporting flu-like symptoms that persisted for weeks, even months. The doctors had searched high and low for a cause, but they couldn’t figure out what was making their patients sick.

They reported a range of symptoms – including muscle aches and pains, low-grade fevers, sore throats, and headaches – but everyone said that crippling fatigue was the most debilitating issue. This wasn’t the kind of fatigue that could be cured by a nap or even a long holiday. No matter how much their patients slept – and some were almost completely bedbound – their fatigue didn’t abate. What’s more, the fatigue got worse whenever they tried to push themselves to do more. Puzzled, the CDC sent two epidemic intelligence service (EIS) officers to try to get to the bottom of what might be happening.

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