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For Some with the Coronavirus, Symptoms Linger for Months

“It’s as if you have a really bad sunburn on your back except it’s from the inside. It’s kind of the way your lungs feel when you go out on a cold day in the winter and you don’t have a scarf on. I’ve had that for the last 10 weeks. That’s the most frustrating symptom.”

by Lori Riley, The Hartford Courant / June 12, 2020
Vicie Brooks stands for a portrait with her granddaughter, Nylah Brooks, 10, in the front yard of Vicie's home on June 9 in Hartford. Brooks, a retired nurse manager for the neuro trauma unit at Hartford Hospital, came down with coronavirus March 23, and suffers lingering effects including heart palpitations, higher than normal blood pressure, back pain and spasms and numbness in her left hand. TNS
(TNS) - Jenn Kubicza’s husband came down with a fever on his birthday, March 27. That was the day Jenn started feeling sick.

Jim Kubicza tested positive for coronavirus when he was admitted to the hospital April 2. He was there for nine days. Jenn never got tested because she was sick at home with their two kids and her doctor told her she was presumed positive.

By late May, Jenn and her 10-year-old son Cole, who has Angelman syndrome, which causes developmental disabilities and seizures, were still experiencing symptoms. While Jim and their older son Lincoln had both recovered, Jenn had shortness of breath and low energy and Cole was still vomiting and struggling with his breathing.

“I had shortness of breath this past Wednesday but I’m having way more better days than bad days now,” Jenn said last week. “I did start Flovent on May 27. I think I’m on Day 71 or 72."
The Kubiczas, who live in Cheshire, had a rough go with the virus — even their two cats got sick with a respiratory illness, and one of them died, although Jenn wasn’t certain it was the virus that caused that.

But the longevity of their illness has been the worst part. It just wouldn’t go away. No one can explain exactly why some people recover quickly and some do not.

Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale, said in some people, the virus may stay in the body and remain active.

“Everything I say is speculative, but from my vantage point as an immunologist looking at this disease, there are a couple of hypotheses,” she said. "One is that this virus is able to establish a reservoir somewhere and that the virus is still active and it’s kind of reactivated every so often and is causing these kinds of symptoms.

"The other possibility is that this virus isn’t any longer infectious but the antigen from the virus that’s being detected by the immune system is still lingering. The body is thinking there’s a virus to fight. But there isn’t. It’s a shell of the virus that’s there. And yet it’s reacting if there was an infectious virus."
She also said it’s possible that this virus has induced some type of autoimmune disease, which is leading to other chronic problems.

“My lab is starting to collect samples from patients who have this long-term disease and trying to understand how their immune response is reacting to the virus,” Iwasaki said. “That’s the starting point. We can rule out some of the possibilities. There’s a genetic component to it, as well as other factors, such as having hypertension to begin with – there are a lot of things to tease apart but only by studying these patients can we figure out what’s going on.”

Vicie Brooks of Hartford, a retired nurse manager at Hartford Hospital and former community liaison nurse, tested positive for COVID-19 on April 5. She started feeling sick March 23 with a fever, coughing and a severe backache. She lost her sense of taste. She had shortness of breath and was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia. Last month, she started to have numbness in her left hand and heart palpitations and when her blood pressure - which is high normally - skyrocketed on May 6, she ended up in the emergency room where she was given different blood pressure medications, a chest x-ray, a brain CAT scan (to check for evidence of a stroke) and an EKG. She was eventually discharged with a heart monitor.

Since then, she’s been to a neurologist, a cardiologist and she had an MRI which showed muscle had atrophied in her left arm.

“I’d try to tie my shoe and my fingers didn’t work,” Brooks said. “[The neurologist] told me he was surprised to find what he did. My left forearm, the muscle in that arm, had been effected. And that’s what controls my fingers on that hand. He said, ’Maybe this COVID attacked your muscles. Your heart is a muscle so if something’s going on with your heart maybe it’s because of the muscle being affected.'”

As of June 9, she hadn’t had palpitations for about a week. Her hand was still numb but her sense of taste came back Sunday when she realized she could taste her sister’s lasagna.
Jenn Kubicza is almost past counting the days she hasn’t felt well. On June 9, with the weather turning humid, she was still not feeling 100 percent.

“I’m feeling it again — the shortness of breath which leads to the coughing,” she said. “I’m disappointed today I’m still feeling it.”

On June 8, Kathy Flaherty of Newington was on Day 88 — she was still coughing, her lungs were still burning and her throat was still scratchy. She came down with a presumed case of the virus March 12 and ended up in the emergency room March 20 due to severe shortness of breath. She was released that same day but she was not tested then because there weren’t enough tests at the time.

She was tested in May; it was negative. Her energy has come back slowly but there are still nagging symptoms that won’t go away.

“It’s as if you have a really bad sunburn on your back except it’s from the inside,” Flaherty said last week. “It’s kind of the way your lungs feel when you go out on a cold day in the winter and you don’t have a scarf on. I’ve had that for the last 10 weeks. That’s the most frustrating symptom.”
Flaherty, the executive director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, has depression and anxiety and worries sometimes that her symptoms will be discounted.

“I makes me think, am I using the wrong words to describe what I’m feeling – I don’t want to oversell anything. A concern of mine since Day 1 has been that any of us who already have a psych diagnosis is that people will just chalk it up to anxiety,” she said. “For the first time, I actually feel like I’m getting a tiny bit of that from my doctors, which is frustrating to me.”

Cindi Gilbert of Enfield had symptoms for 51 days. As the area manager of clinical operations for 11 urgent care facilities in Connecticut and Massachusetts, she was helping set up testing sites on March 18. That day, she started having a dry cough, a running nose, a fever and chest congestion and by the next morning, she said it felt like somebody “had poured glue into my lungs.”

She was the first patient at one of her testing sites and she tested positive. Her entire family — husband Jim, 21-year-old daughter Kayla and 15-year-old son Jimmy — all came down with the virus and all tested positive. Within a week her initial symptoms had abated, but she continued to feel a mononucleosis-type fatigue and had intermittent fevers.

“I had the tingling in my right side into my right fingers and down the shoulder that lasted about a month,” she said. “Probably the scariest thing for me was right before I stopped with the symptoms I had an episode that came on suddenly, it felt like someone had lit fire to the left side of my chest. It went into my shoulder. I went to the ER. Of course, when you do test positive, your doctor won’t see you and urgent cares for the most part won’t see you, so you end up having to go to the emergency room.”

That was in mid-April. She tested negative on May 11, a few days after her symptoms finally disappeared. Jimmy’s symptoms lingered for 3 to 4 weeks as well.

“Theirs [her children’s symptoms] were not respiratory, they had more GI involvement,” she said. “Jimmy continued to deal with the lingering symptoms. He was doing online schooling. There were some days he slept all day long. He was dealing with the headaches and fatigue as well.”
It’s been difficult for people to wake up day after day — for months — with symptoms.

“There is a collective trauma from all this,” Flaherty said. “It’s like post traumatic stress without the 'D' for disorder. We’re all figuring out how to cope.”
Lori Riley can be reached at lriley@courant.com.
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