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Scott Krakower started getting the chills and sweats at his Long Island home in mid-April. He thought it was a cold, until he couldn’t taste anything.
Once the coronavirus test came back positive, Krakower, a medical expert in child and adolescent psychiatry, prepared himself for two weeks of misery. But now, almost three months later, he still gets those chills. He also has a cough, shortness of breath and trouble eating and swallowing.
Krakower, 40, is part of a growing group of COVID-19 patients who are suffering from its symptoms for weeks, and even months, after the standard recovery time.
“Most people get the virus and after a few weeks their symptoms resolve,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, emergency physician at Lenox hill Hospital in New York City. “We’re seeing a different spectrum where people don’t recover, and they have symptoms from weeks to months.”
Their symptoms aren’t severe enough to be hospitalized but not mild enough to resume normal life, forcing this group of people to endure the illness in limbo as they quarantine from friends, family and the outside world for months on end.
“I kept thinking I was past the worst of it and then it got worse,” said Krakower, unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. “That’s what’s crazy.”
Throughout his illness, he visited the emergency room and urgent care centers several times. He was never sick enough to stay hospitalized, but his symptoms wouldn’t get any better.
By week three, Krakower couldn’t breathe, eat or talk as his throat swelled up. He spent the days coughing over the sink, sometimes spitting up blood, and the nights wrapped up in a blanket with “the most intense chills of my life,” something he will never forget. Quarantined in a bedroom at home, he could barely make it through FaceTime sessions with his wife, Heather, and his two young children.
“I was scared,” he said. “I was worried I was going to lose them – that they were going to lose me.”
His future was uncertain until he was introduced to Glatter, who prescribed him a steroid that has shown promise in improving survival outcomes in COVID-19 patients.
Dexamethasone, a common steroid used to treat inflammation, was found to cut deaths by up to one-third in a study of more than 6,000 severely ill patients, according to a team of researchers in England.
Once Krakower started to take the steroids – on top of the inhaler, nebulizer, prednisone and over-the-counter medications he was already taking – he noticed his violent cough start to die down.
While the steroids may have worked for Krakower, Glatter insists the same drug cocktail may not work for everyone as each patient reacts to the coronavirus differently and therefore requires different medications to recover.
Krakower tested COVID-19 positive twice over the course of five and half weeks during his illness. Finally, by the sixth and seventh week, he tested negative twice. But his symptoms were still persistent.
Glatter said viral fragments or dead virus that are no longer infectious and don’t show up on a real-time test may still trigger symptoms in the body.
“We’re learning that these long-haulers are a population that often test negative. Some of these patients have never had a positive test,” he said.
Glatter has patients diagnosed since early March who are still going to the hospital to seek treatment for their symptoms, most of which are ongoing fatigue and muscle aches.
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Because these symptoms aren’t considered severe, Glatter says some doctors think they may be due to anxiety, or psychological and emotional stress.
“Medical gaslighting does exist, and it has existed, and we really have to pay attention now that COVID-19 has created these long-haulers,” he said. “People who go through this for months get really anxious and frustrated and depressed and they don’t know how long they can keep fighting.”
Krakower is all too familiar with the feeling. He’s finally reunited with his family, albeit sometimes in a mask and gloves, but he’s far from who he used to be before COVID-19. A one-hour phone interview with USA TODAY left him weak and breathless.
“The illness is both emotionally and physically draining,” he said. “When you’ve been sick like that for so long, it’s so physically taxing on you.”
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