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Kiwis infected with Covid-19 still battling debilitating symptoms, despite being cleared of virus

This week, NZ hit a long-awaited milestone – zero active cases of Covid-19.

Medical staff test a supermarket employee who volunteered at a pop-up community Covid-19 testing station at a carpark in Christchurch. Source: Associated Press

Every person known to have been infected with coronavirus has recovered – now without symptoms and cleared by a health official, according to the Ministry of Health.

Those 1482 people are no longer considered infectious and can leave self-isolation.

For those of us who avoided the virus, recovered probably gives the impression of a person back to health.

But as Natalia Sutherland discovered, the reality is something much different.

For Aucklander Alice Banfield, Covid-19 is not a virus she suffered from, but a virus she is still battling.

Alice Banfield is young fit and healthy and is urging all Kiwis to understand the severity of Covid-19 Source: Supplied

Diagnosed in mid-March, every week for Alice feels like “a continuation” of the virus with different symptoms continuing to appear.

Although cleared of the virus, out of self-isolation and no longer infectious, Alice is struggling with severe fatigue, headaches and muscle aches.

“It’s been really crazy. I thought I’d be better after all these weeks.

“I’m in month three and I’m not better.”

Being cleared of the virus hasn’t changed life for Alice, who still feels like she’s in the midst of the battle which has caused many ongoing symptoms for her.

That includes a week of suffering headaches every day with one so intense, she was told by a nurse to seek help.

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“I was writhing in pain from the headache it was so bad.”

The next week her symptoms switched to muscle pain, a symptom she felt in the early stages of the virus.

Having had symptoms for 12 weeks, Alice says there are days when she feels better but other days “I’ve had to say sorry flatmates, I can’t do the dishes today”.

When I spoke to Alice in May she had been suffering fatigue but had managed a walk for the first time since she became sick in March.

For a 32-year-old PhD student whose life before Covid-19 involved a busy schedule and travelling overseas, the halt to her life from the virus has been abrupt and long-lasting.

“Normally I go at 110 per cent and work out at the gym and work on my PhD and visit friends in the evening.”

Considered a mild case of Covid-19 that’s fully recovered, Alice believes most people assume having the virus is like having the flu and don’t realise that Covid-19 causes ongoing issues for those with even mild cases.

When asked about these ongoing symptoms suffered by some Kiwi Covid-19 cases in a recent press conference, Director of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said there was no evidence yet of ongoing symptoms.

“I haven’t read any reports on ongoing symptoms here in New Zealand.”

He said most reports of longer-term effects of Covid-19 are from overseas and not here because of our low number of cases.

However, for the handful of young, fit Kiwis I spoke to with mild cases of Covid-19, ongoing symptoms of the virus is still a reality for many of them.

BODY ACHES AND CHEST PAINS

For one Auckland man, who doesn’t want to be named, body aches, chest pains and mild fatigue continued weeks after he and his flatmates fell ill in early April with the virus.

Despite having three negative tests, the man in his late 20s battled ongoing symptoms for weeks after the infection.

Like many with Covid-19, the symptoms of body aches and chest tightness occurred in the early stages infection. He was tested for the virus but received a negative test result.

“Over the following days he developed a mild cough and chest tightness. His body aches were extremely bad on some days, especially through the shoulders and neck,” his flatmate who spoke to 1 NEWS said.

When his symptoms worsened and he developed shortness of breath, he was sent to hospital.

He never tested positive for Covid-19 despite three tests, but due to the positive tests of two of his flatmates and his Covid-19-like symptoms he was diagnosed as a probable case.

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With a few days without symptoms, the man was declared virus-free. However, a few days later he developed diarrhea, body aches and chest pain again. 

Another flatmate, a woman in her 20s, also developed chest pain not long after being cleared of the virus. On visiting her doctor, she was diagnosed with pleurisy.

Both have been slowly recovering with the help of their doctors.

MONTHS OF RECOVERY

Dr Michael Maze, Senior Lecturer in Medicine and Respiratory Physician at the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago says the prolonged recovery from Covid-19 is something that has “struck” him as he looks into the long-term effects of the virus.

“My experience is that previously fit and healthy people have taken a couple of months to get back to work.

“The word ‘mild’ is perhaps misleading. Sure, these people didn’t end up in intensive care, but often were laid up in bed for two-three weeks.”

Dr Maze is in the early stages of investigating the effects of Covid-19 on those who had severe cases of the disease and were hospitalised.

He says there is a prolonged recovery for the small number of Kiwis who were hospitalised with the virus.

“It isn’t uncommon for prolonged recovery after serious infections.

“I usually tell my patients with pneumonia to expect six-eight weeks for recovery.”

He believes most Covid-19 sufferers will make a full recovery, but that it could take some months.

“It is likely that this is because of the body’s immune response rather than the virus still being present.”

Dr Maze says there isn’t a treatment to help those struggling with the post-viral effects of Covid-19.

“However, we aren’t coming at it from a standing start.

“Post-viral fatigue is a well-recognised phenomenon. There is a lot of research on the topic, and the key message is that most people can recover.”

IT'S KICKED MY ASS

For Liz Tuck returning to work after suffering from Covid-19 has been draining.

“It’s kicked my ass. I’m 35 and really healthy and fit and some days I feel like I can barely finish the day.”

Liz first began experiencing symptoms in late March after coming into contact with a case linked to overseas travel.

Her illness began like many cases of Covid-19, with a sore throat.

“Then I was extremely tired and kept falling to sleep, then I had the most horrendous thumping headache, it felt like I was being smashed in the head, and I couldn’t handle any noise, it would be agony.”

Then came the body aches, tight chest and a cough.

“I also had very bad anxiety,” Liz says.

Like most Covid-19 sufferers, Liz had days where she felt better, but then the virus took a turn.

“I got better for two days then went downhill again with headaches, body pains and fatigue.”

Her health care worker from the Ministry of Health became so concerned about Liz’s second wave of the virus she was told to contact her doctor and seek help.

“[She] was very concerned because I seemed to have gotten better, then wham I was hit again and this time I got chest pains, shortness of breath and a cough.”

Away from her family, in isolation, Liz struggled with the virus for 31 days before being declared no longer infectious on April 24.

Despite officially being cleared of infection, the virus had left a toll on Liz.

“I have experienced extreme exhaustion since having Covid-19. I’m not myself, still some days are better than others, but it has really knocked my body about. It has caused me to suffer panic attacks.”

On top of dealing with the after-effects of the virus, those I spoke to say there is a stigma with having the virus.

“Having Covid has had a big impact on my life,” says Liz.

“I was treated very different, like I’m a leper at times and a lot of people step back if they find out I contracted Covid-19.”

IT WILL BE FINE

In the last couple of weeks Alice has been given a formal diagnosis of post-viral fatigue by her doctor.

She posts about the diagnosis on a particularly rough week of fatigue 11 weeks post-Covid-19.

"I will be fine - it's just turning out to be a bit of a longer road than any of us expected."

Post-viral fatigue seems to be a common theme among Covid-19 suffers with thousands in social media groups speaking about their symptoms online.

From fatigue, to loss of smell and taste to shortness of breath and muscle aches, thousands of young and old from around the world post about how they’re struggling to recover from their battle with Covid-19.

More articles are emerging about Covid-19's lasting effects as the world enters six month with the virus. 

How long the after-effects of the virus will last is unknown, but Covid-19 sufferers are holding onto the hope that they will make a full recovery after surviving the deadly virus.