Boise jewelry artist Mike Rogers survived several waves of COVID-19 outbreaks without getting sick, until mid-June when the omicron variant caught up with him.
Six weeks after his advanced coronavirus infection, Rogers is not back to normal. His brain feels like it’s encased in plastic wrap, being squeezed and buzzed with electrical currents.
Rogers is now among the ranks of Idahoans who survive coronavirus infections but are left with post-COVID-19 health problems.
There is no official data on how many Idahoans recover from COVID-19 only to experience “long-term COVID” for weeks or months. But new data obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun suggests it’s not uncommon.
What does ‘long COVID’ mean?
Studies have identified a range of post-COVID health problems.
There’s the hard-to-define “long carrier” condition that comes with a grab bag of symptoms: erratic heartbeat, breathing problems, fatigue, “brain fog,” altered senses, and more.
For patients whose COVID-19 puts them in the hospital or on life support, post-COVID recovery can mean months of physical therapy, rehabilitation, and ongoing medical care.
And some COVID-19 patients will later develop life-changing health conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease, heart failure, or stroke.
“When this whole pandemic recedes, we will be left with the legacy of this pandemic, a legacy of chronic disease,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, principal investigator for the VA St. Louis Health Care System in Missouri, in the March issue of Nature, an international journal of science and technology. Al-Aly co-authored a study that found a 40% increased risk of diabetes among veterans who had COVID-19 compared to those who had not been infected.
The research team also previously found higher rates of cardiovascular conditions and kidney disease, Nature reported.
The size of the extended burden of COVID
How much of a legacy of chronic illness will COVID-19 leave in Idaho?
The Sun asked Idaho’s largest health insurers, Idaho Medicaid and Blue Cross of Idaho, for data that could offer insight into the size of “protracted COVID” in Idaho.
Last year, as it became clear that COVID-19 was casting a long shadow over long-term health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved a new diagnosis code for physicians to use on medical claims, to from October.
The Sun asked the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare how many people enrolled in Idaho Medicaid have received that diagnosis.
State claims data showed 1,401 people on Idaho Medicaid with the diagnosis as of July. At least 259 of them were previously hospitalized for COVID-19; the remainder had no record of hospitalization on their Medicaid claims.
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But that’s probably a drastic underestimate of the true number of Idahoans with post-COVID health conditions.
The vast majority of Idahoans do not have Medicaid, so the claims data reflects only a small cross-section of the state.
And within that cross section, the count is limited to Medicaid recipients who received medical care for their post-COVID syndrome; and whose doctors listed the diagnosis code on your Medicaid claim; and only for medical claims filed since October.
Blue Cross of Idaho also told the Sun earlier this year that its claims showed a 3.7% to 5.5% increase in diabetes and cardiovascular disease since before the pandemic, though how much of that is fallout remains unclear. directly from COVID-19.
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Health care may take ‘decades’ to stabilize
Deaths and critical illnesses are much less common in the current wave of COVID-19 than they were a year ago. But the pandemic’s chronic disease legacy could stretch into the middle of this century, according to analysts.
Fitch Ratings, the credit rating agency, warned last summer that “long after the acute phase of the pandemic has concluded”, people will need more medical attention for the long-term damage caused by COVID-19.
That will drive up medical costs and insurance premiums “for decades,” Fitch said. “These costs will arise from the necessary addition (of more clinics) to address the ongoing treatment of chronic conditions related to potentially permanent damage caused by COVID-19.”
It can add pressure to a health care system that is already strained and understaffed, Fitch said.
One of Idaho’s newest post-COVID patients is experiencing that firsthand.
Mike Rogers slept almost all day and night, every day, in the weeks following his COVID-19 illness.
“After a couple of weeks, I was surprised it wasn’t over,” he said. Two weeks turned into three weeks, then four.
Rogers made an appointment with her nurse practitioner, who discovered that COVID-19 “had raised my blood pressure astronomically,” she said. He immediately started taking blood pressure medication.
That helped a bit, he said. But nearly two months later, she’s sleeping 11 hours or more, napping on the couch in his study.
The strange sensation of pressure and electricity in his head has not gone away, he said.
A few weeks ago, he got a referral to the post-COVID clinic in Boise, operated by St. Luke’s Health System. Later, she got a referral to a neurologist.
The clinic was full, he said, and he is still waiting for a call from the neurologist.