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I-TEAM: Living with COVID-19, the long-haulers fight to return to normal

Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 6:51 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Some people have survived COVID-19, but an all-new I-Team investigation shows the virus is threatening to kill their livelihood.

We’re not talking about those who lost their job because of the pandemic.

These are people who have a job but haven’t been able to go back to work because months – even a year later, they still have debilitating symptoms.

Our I-Team is digging deeper into COVID disability, specifically, if the so-called long haulers could qualify for long-term benefits.

I found it’s a simple question, but with a complicated answer.

So we met Brandi Hood. She was feeling fine on her last day of school before fall break. But two days later, she was sick, but not super sick.

“They did a scan to confirm it was COVID pneumonia, and I was shocked at that diagnosis because who gets pneumonia without a cough? I never coughed,” she said. “COVID was like the worst flu I’ve ever had. It lasted, I’d say, about a week. And I joke now that I miss the good old days when I just had COVID,” she said.

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COVID was the easy part, but what came next almost killed her.

“I didn’t think I was dying anymore in January. I didn’t feel good, but I could, I could walk a few steps by then,” Hood said.

The once active and healthy Spanish teacher at Screven County High School now uses a walker. She’s winded after just a few steps.

“It’s a horrible feeling, not to be able to take a satisfying breath. It’s like drowning,” she said.

She’s suffered many symptoms, had problems with her vision, and even her hair has started to thin out. Still, she says she’s thankful she’s a survivor.

“So, if the best you’ve ever felt health-wise was a 10... Where are you now with COVID, and where were you at your worst with the post COVID?” I asked. “With COVID pneumonia, I was at a flat zero, and really didn’t expect to survive. And today, it’s hard to say because I have come so far, and I am grateful, but today a good day is a 4,” she said.

“How many people do you know who died?” I asked.

“18. I can name 18 people who have died of COVID,” Hood said.

More than half-a-million Americans, roughly the population of the entire state of Wyoming, have died from COVID-19.

That number of COVID infections is now around 30 million, or about the same as the populations of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Kentucky combined.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, though.

“Some people want to say, ‘Oh, but my chances of surviving COVID are great,” Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer of AU Health said. “Death is not the only outcome from this disease.”

Dr. Coule sees other outcomes on a daily basis at AU Health with patients like Brandi.

Right now, the CDC recognizes these long-term symptoms starting with the most common: fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, and chest pain.

Hundreds of News 12 viewers echo that in this poll I posted to my Facebook page.

The CDC lists “smell and taste problems” as some of the most serious issues, but the I-Team couldn’t help but notice how many of you reported constantly smelling smoke, specifically cigarette smoke.

Others said it was more like a campfire or gasoline. These strangers found comfort in knowing they weren’t the only ones experiencing these symptoms.

676 comments in all, commiserating about everything from hearing loss to hair loss to a metallic taste and lots of brain fog, but Dr. Coule says long hauler symptoms don’t stop there.

“We have people that have developed renal failure, so kidney disease, and basically end up on dialysis for the rest of their life,” he explained. “People have strokes, heart attacks are all directly related because of COVID. "

It’s why he says we can’t just look at the mortality rate.

Coronavirus goes beyond just life and death. It leaves so many survivors like Brandi who are locked in limbo.

“I really can’t think of anything in my career, anything in medicine, that has such a profound impact on all these other organ and body systems like this,” Dr. Coule said.

Also unchartered territory: COVID long haulers and long-term disability benefits.

A Congressional letter urges the head of the Social Security Administration to look into the “long-term health effects of COVID-19,” including how it impacts “survivors’ ability to work.”

The I-Team found social security offices face a backlog after offices were closed in the pandemic. We found a 30 percent drop in applications.

We also found another drastic drop of nearly 50 percent fewer disability claims awarded this January compared to the start of COVID in the US.

In March of 2020, the office awarded more than 72,000 disability claims nationwide. The latest data is from January of 2021 when they didn’t even reach 38,000. That’s a little less than half.

Experts fear the system will be even more overwhelmed soon as early studies “indicating 10 to 30 percent of COVID survivors could be long-haulers.

“I would be shocked if we did not see a large number of people that end up claiming some type of a disability status,” Dr. Coule said.

“Would you consider them disabled at this point?” I asked.

“If you have somebody that was perfectly healthy and robust and working, and then has gone through this illness, and now literally can’t walk to the kitchen and back without being exhausted... then yeah, that person’s not going to be able to keep the same kind of employment that they did before,” Dr. Coule said.

Still, convincing the government or a private insurance company someone has chronic fatigue isn’t an easy task since there are no definitive tests or labs that prove it.

There has been a recent push to study it, like this $7 million research grant, but as it stands now, even the CDC doesn’t list it among the most serious complications.

So many of you report experiencing it as well, which brings us back to Brandi and Facebook. She’s been talking to News 12 viewers on our thread because she knows how much it helps.

Finding others just like her on a long-hauler group called Survivor Corps has given her a lot of strength.

“That was so comforting to me. Not that they were suffering, but that I wasn’t suffering alone,” she said.

Survivor Corps is more than a Facebook group. It’s become a grassroots movement.

So much so, that researchers have taken notice and are especially interested in how the vaccine affects long haulers.

Another potential problem ahead for long-haulers applying for benefits is that some don’t have documentation of a positive COVID test. That’s because they never got one.

Remember at the beginning of the pandemic, tests were scarce, so they were limited to those being hospitalized.

So, some long-haulers might have trouble proving they even had COVID in the first place.

But you can check out the Survivor Corps Facebook group by clicking here.

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