SAN JOSE SPOTLIGHT — Brandie Parshall caught COVID-19 in December 2020. One month later, she started experiencing debilitating malaise, chronic fatigue, heart issues and brain fog. In June 2021, she started being treated for long COVID symptoms, seeing Stanford specialists at the Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome Clinic.

Long COVID is when symptoms persist for more than four weeks after infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“This is real and it’s affecting a lot of people,” Parshall told San Jose Spotlight. “It’s very debilitating. There’s no way I can physically or mentally work right now.”

The contagious omicron subvariant BA.5 has swept into Santa Clara County, and with it the potential of more people experiencing long COVID. Prior to the illness, Parshall, 44, was physically active, attending boot camp workouts in the morning four days a week. That ended after contracting COVID-19. She used to put in 12-hour days as an accountant for Foster Farms, but had to quit after 19 years on the job as her symptoms worsened. For the first year, just getting out of bed became difficult.

“I felt like the energy was sucked out of me and I had a bad flu,” she said. Parshall’s brain fog is still there, leading to issues with comprehension and short term memory, she said, and reading is overwhelming, causing her to crash from fatigue. She hopes she’ll recover, but is nervous because long COVID has lasted more than a year.

“I know I’m in the best hands and that gives me hope,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

‘Prevention is crucial’

Brian Block, assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at UCSF, told San Jose Spotlight 10 percent to 20 percent of people with COVID are estimated to get long COVID, about 25 million people in the United States. He said studies continue to show vaccination lowers the risk of long COVID.

“We are also learning that many people with long COVID gradually improve,” he said, “but the condition remains heterogeneous with some people having more of a waxing/waning course.”

Dr. Hector Bonilla, co-director of the Post-Acute COVID Syndrome Clinic at Stanford, said since the clinic opened in May 2021, close to 300 patients have been seen with long COVID. The clinic collected data from 140 adults, ages 30 to 60. Patients experienced post-COVID symptoms from 40 to 800 days, with the majority symptomatic two to 400 days. Females, who made up 60% of the study, had more symptoms than males, often including fatigue, insomnia and changes in taste.

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“A significant amount of people had very mild symptoms, but (some) end up having a big, big problem,” Bonilla told San Jose Spotlight, referring to the inability to regain their taste or smell or having lingering cognitive impairments.

According to the CDC, long or post-COVID-19 symptoms can last weeks, months or even years and include fatigue, headaches, brain fog, shortness of breath, joint pain and intestinal problems. Long COVID is found more often in people who experienced severe COVID-19 related illness, according to the CDC, and unvaccinated individuals who become infected are at higher risk.

Dr. George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County Public Health, told San Jose Spotlight a wide variety of symptoms associated with long COVID can stem from other health issues. This can make it challenging to diagnose. Because there is no overall cure for long COVID, he recommends people experiencing serious post-COVID-19 symptoms see doctors who know their health history for treatment plans.

“The existence of long COVID is one of the reasons prevention is crucial,” he said. “The best way to prevent long COVID is to not get COVID, and the best way to not get COVID is being vaccinated and boosted and wearing masks in indoor settings.”

Not the same virus

Researchers are racing to understand long COVID better and to develop prevention strategies and treatment plans, including whether medications like Paxlovid can help. Paxlovid is an oral antiviral therapy that needs to be taken within five days after developing symptoms to lower the risk of hospitalization. The medicine is prescribed by a physician.

Han said the more times an individual is infected with COVID-19, the greater the chances of getting long COVID. So if a person has lingering symptoms like a cough and they are not testing positive, Han told San Jose Spotlight it’s fine to come out of isolation, but important to stay masked to avoid reinfection.

As of Friday, 86.3 percent of Santa Clara County residents of all ages have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and 68.3 percent of residents ages 5 and older have received at least one booster shot. The county started administering shots to infants and toddlers last month.

BA.5 has become the dominant strain in samples collected from the San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility, which monitors more than 1.4 million residents. COVID samples found in wastewater countywide are currently at rates significantly higher than during the Delta surge last summer, and at the peak has been as high as the December and January surge, a county official said.

Bonilla wants to ensure residents don’t take this latest surge lightly. “The virus we have now is completely different than the virus we had in 2019,” Bonilla said. “Get vaccinated and wear masks in public.”

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