‘Long COVID’ patients suffer as symptoms linger

Courtesy of a Kyoto City resident
Bottles of essential oils and a bag of Chinese medicine used by a woman who lives in Kyoto City to treat abnormalities with her sense of smell.

Two years have passed since the first novel coronavirus infection was confirmed in the country in January 2020. Many people have long-term COVID-19 aftereffects such as fatigue and an abnormal sense of smell even after testing negative following a certain period of time. In some cases, the illness persists for months or even more than a year, making some people unable to return to work.

‘Smells like sewage’

A 23-year-old part-time worker in Kyoto City said she didn’t think the abnormalities with her sense of smell would last so long after the infection had gone. “I thought, ‘Why just me?’ I cried so much,” she said.

When she was infected with the virus in August last year, she had a high fever and fatigue that lasted for about three days. But she soon began to recover after entering a care facility. However, as soon as her fever went down, she became unable to smell or taste.

Her sense of taste gradually returned, but the sense of smell is off. She said she “smells a strange odor like sewage” in foods with a strong aroma, such as curry. She has just gotten married, but when she cooks at home, she can’t tell the flavor. She said she can’t tell anymore what tastes good.

The woman visits an otolaryngologist once a week, and the treatment costs her more than ¥10,000 a month. She was told by the doctor it may take more than a year to fully recover.

She said: “Many young people casually think that even if they are infected, they will not become seriously ill, but there are people who suffer from the aftereffects for months or years even after they are cured. I really want people to be careful about this infection.”

‘My body is no longer mine’

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, people who have recovered from the infection and test negative are considered to have “long COVID” if they still have symptoms that occurred during the infection. Currently, the decision is made based on what is called a diagnosis of exclusion, as their medical condition cannot be established without the presence of the infection.

A woman in her 70s living in Aichi Prefecture has been suffering from aftereffects such as fatigue and difficulty breathing for 1½ years.

She was found to have been infected the summer before last and was hospitalized. Her pneumonia was so severe that she was temporarily placed in the intensive care unit. She was discharged about three weeks later, but she continued to feel ill. She still gets a blood test and an X-ray at the respiratory medicine department once a month.

Before the infection, she worked as a full-time caregiver at an elderly care facility. Now she cannot live without the support of her daughter, who lives with her, as she feels dull and cannot get up in the morning. She said she wants to go back to her job, even if for a short time, as she found it rewarding. But there is no prospect of returning.

“I feel as if my body is no longer mine. My physical strength can’t keep up with my feelings,” the woman lamented.

Study underway

Kawasaki-based St. Marianna University School of Medicine Hospital examined 286 people — 131 men and 155 women — aged in their teens to their 80s suffering from long COVID from January last year to Jan. 13 this year. Some of them saw a doctor regularly for more than a year, and 78 of them were forced to resign or take a leave of absence from work.

When asked what aftereffects they experienced, with more than one answer allowed, 59% of them said fatigue, while 46% cited abnormalities with their sense of smell. Abnormalities with their sense of taste was reported by 35%.

By the end of last year, the Tokyo metropolitan government had received 4,717 inquiries at telephone counseling centers set up at eight metropolitan and public hospitals last spring especially for those experiencing aftereffects.

A research team at the ministry is currently studying the aftereffects of the omicron variant, which has been dominant in the current sixth wave of infections.

According to a report by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, only 1% of people infected with the omicron variant in Okinawa Prefecture had abnormalities with their sense of smell or taste, which was thought to be characteristic of infection with the novel coronavirus. “Symptoms and aftereffects can be different depending on the type of variant,” a senior ministry official said.

In December, the ministry compiled a handbook for medical institutions with instructions on how to examine patients with lingering symptoms and ways to provide rehabilitation services. The Tokyo metropolitan government has also made a booklet for the public on the characteristic symptoms of infection.

“We would like to raise awareness among people who are suffering from COVID-19 aftereffects without knowing about them to urge them to visit medical institutions or use consultation services at an early stage,” a metropolitan government official said.