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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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Faces of long COVID: Two Vancouver women struggle with symptoms for months, years

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Jenny Bevard shows off her collection of marathon and half-marathon medals in her Vancouver home. Before getting long COVID, she was an avid runner. Now, even a walk inside from the car can leave her short of breath.
Jenny Bevard shows off her collection of marathon and half-marathon medals in her Vancouver home. Before getting long COVID, she was an avid runner. Now, even a walk inside from the car can leave her short of breath. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Jenny Bevard

In the beginning of 2020, Jenny Bevard, 45, was working as an emergency room tech in Clark County.

In March of that year, Bevard tested positive for COVID-19 and missed nearly two months of work. She returned in May — by July, she tested positive once again and barely remembers the subsequent three months.

“I really probably should have been hospitalized,” Bevard said. “COVID nearly killed me.”

Bevard’s son, Blake, who was 17 at the time, stepped up to help take care of her. Blake had dozens of alarms on his phone set to go off throughout the day, reminding him when to give his mother medication and check her oxygen levels. For two months, he barely left the house as caretaking for his sick mother became a full-time job.

Though Bevard did slowly get better after those three months, she never returned to work at the hospital. For nearly a year, she was so sick she couldn’t work at all. Now, she works as a behavior intervention specialist at an elementary school in Evergreen Public Schools. Three years later, and she is still struggling to navigate her symptoms.

Bevard is sick often, missing many days of work. While she used to be an avid runner and hiker, now even just a walk to the car can leave Bevard out of breath.

Clark County COVID snapshot

In the three years since Gov. Jay Inslee declared a public health emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been 112,784 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Clark County and 1,072 deaths from the disease, according to Clark County Public Health.

The tally, which does not include at-home test results, almost certainly undercounts the total number of cases, according to Dr. Alan Melnick, public health director for Clark County Public Health.

“I’m just tired. Sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Bevard said. “It’s frustrating because there are just no answers.”

Bevard has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. She also received a positive antinuclear antibody test. Her doctor said this indicates she likely had an underlying autoimmune disease that only surfaced after getting COVID-19, according to Bevard.

At this point, the best she can get help with is symptom management. For Bevard, one of her newfound coping mechanisms is lymphatic massage along with acupuncture and scraping. She also started taking hydroxychloroquine in February, a medication often used to treat autoimmune diseases. That, combined with prioritizing her overall health, has been extremely helpful.

“This medicine has been amazing to me. I feel so much more alert. The fatigue is almost gone,” Bevard said.

Last weekend, Bevard helped her friend move. Carrying boxes is the most active Bevard has been for almost three years. She is hopeful her stamina is starting to return.

“I don’t know that I can say I’m at where I was before, but so much improvement,” Bevard said. “My only thing was to keep moving forward and fighting for my health. I’ve always been hopeful, but now I’m so encouraged.”

Melissa Worlein

In August, Melissa Worlein, 52, tested positive for COVID-19, after years of dodging the virus. Worlein has fibromyalgia, and her daughter has an autoimmune disease, so the household took many precautions to stay healthy. Though Worlein felt sick after coming down with COVID — she had a fever and body aches — the first few days were not miserable. After about a week, she began to notice that after exerting herself, even just doing simple chores, she quickly became short of breath.

Six months later, Worlein’s symptoms have only gotten worse. She has been diagnosed with long COVID and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS.

“There was a lot more fear in the beginning before I really understood what was going on with my body,” Worlein said. “Now it’s really just been a period of grieving … you really just have to grieve the person you were before you got sick.”

Worlein used to take daily walks. Now just a walk to the car may leave her severely short of breath. For her, the combination of POTS and long COVID causes her resting heart rate to surge to as high as 160 to 170 beats per minute. She experiences extreme fatigue after simple tasks — so much so that she has been out of work and without an income for weeks.

Long COVID’s reach

While most people who get COVID-19 recover, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2022 suggests that nearly one in five American adults who have had COVID-19 suffer from long COVID.

In that same time frame, the American Medical Association estimated that between 10 percent and 30 percent of patients may experience long COVID after recovering from the initial infection.

If 20 percent of people who get COVID-19 develop long COVID, that would mean over 22,500 people in Clark County have experienced long COVID symptoms, based on the more than 112,000 in the county reported to have had COVID, according to Clark County Public Health.

Through it all, Worlein has learned to listen to her body, giving herself the time needed to rest and put her feet up.

“The biggest thing I have found to be helpful is rest and self-pacing,” Worlein said. “What I’m finding with long COVID is you have this limit of what you can do, and if you push it, it only gets worse.”

Worlein has been working with Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a family medicine physician and lead of the long COVID unit at Kaiser Permanente. Kennedy’s approach to care for patients with long COVID centers on neuroplasticity — the nervous system’s ability to change its response to brain activity.

“It’s really reframing your nervous system and calming down your nervous system,” Kennedy said. “There’s lots of pieces of evidence out there that really support this and why it makes sense. That the body is not damaged, it’s the nervous system.”

This method has also been beneficial for people with POTS, according to Kennedy, which is why Worlein is a good candidate.

More in This Series

A wheelchair is pictured underneath the stairs as Melissa Worlein, who got coronavirus back in August and has since been struggling with long COVID, takes a break in between chores at her Vancouver home Tuesday afternoon, March 14, 2023.
Long COVID in Clark County: It’s what we don’t know
For the past six months, Melissa Worlein’s life has been dictated by a timer.

Kennedy is working with her patients using techniques such as stream-of-consciousness writing and pain-reprocessing therapy to help calm the nervous system. One key technique for Worlein has been to seek out recovery stories to see the possibility that she can get better.

“The beauty of (long COVID) is that people can get better, and even be cured of symptoms like this,” Kennedy said.

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