Vaccination finally relieved symptoms
For almost a year, Megan Barton struggled with episodes of burning in her lungs, coughing and headaches. Her hair was coming out in fistfuls. She couldn’t walk a short distance without stopping to catch her breath, and chores on her farm in Tonasket were impossible. Even conversations were difficult because of the dryness in her throat.
Barton contracted COVID-19 in July 2020, although no one has been able to pinpoint how she got it. Equally puzzling is why she developed the debilitating symptoms of what’s called long COVID (or post-COVID condition).
This May, Barton got the COVID vaccine. After 10 months of struggling, her symptoms vanished. “As soon as I had the second dose, it all went away,” she said. “It’s almost like it completely reset my system back to normal.”
Although 30% to 40% of people with long COVID see their symptoms disappear after vaccination, no one can explain that, either.
Barton is an executive assistant at Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak. While she doesn’t work in patient care, she’s part of the hospital’s incident command team and receives daily updates on the virus. She has followed strict protocols of masking, hand hygiene and social distancing, both at work and in her personal life.
But in July 2020 — when per-capita cases in Okanogan County were the highest in the state — Barton developed all the classic symptoms of COVID. She had body aches and couldn’t take in air. It was as if there were a thousand bricks sitting on her chest, she said. She lost her sense of taste and smell. “It was blatantly obvious. I called my boss in tears,” Barton said.
Barton isolated in a guest room in her basement. The fit 36-year-old couldn’t walk down the hall to the bathroom without her husband’s help.
Barton was so short of breath that she was afraid she’d die in her sleep. So she tried to stay up all night and to sleep while her husband was awake during the day. She had a terrifying seizure.
Seven weeks after her infection, the fatigue started to dissipate and she was able to return to the office.
But then a collection of new and incapacitating symptoms began to plague her.
Barton had terrible headaches and severe shortness of breath. She’d wake up coughing, which kept her up half the night. Her husband had to sleep in another room so he could get enough rest to go to work. Her body temperature went haywire — she was either sweltering or freezing.
The most concerning thing was the pain in her chest. “It felt as if someone had poured gasoline on my lungs and set them on fire,” Barton said. Sometimes the burning would go away after an hour, but sometimes it lasted for days.
In January, she finally went to the doctor, who said Barton’s symptoms were consistent with long COVID.
Because she works in health care, Barton was eligible for the COVID vaccine early on, but she was wary. It’s not that she didn’t trust it, but she’d read that some people who’d had a severe case of COVID relapsed after being vaccinated. “I just didn’t want to feel that sick again,” she said.
But as more and more people got vaccinated, evidence was mounting that long-haul symptoms often disappeared after the vaccine.
After her first dose, Barton suffered a bout of her original COVID symptoms, which sent her back to bed for a few days. But then even the long-haul symptoms subsided.
Now, seven weeks after her second dose, Barton feels normal again. “My lung capacity’s great. It’s like a switch was flipped,” she said. The only lingering symptom is a dry throat when she talks for too long.
Barton now acknowledges that she minimized the seriousness of her infection last summer. But she had seen how devastating the disease could be and wanted to be sure that limited resources were available for people she thought were even sicker, she said.
Barton decided to share her story because she believes it’s important for people to know how easily COVID can spread, and how the effects of the disease can linger. It touches your family, your neighbors and your community, she said. “COVID affects all of us, and it’s personal,” Barton said.
Research on long-TERM COVID
Doctors don’t know a lot about what causes long-term COVID symptoms, nor why the vaccine helps some of these people. Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, is among those gathering hard data on vaccinated “long-haulers.”
Some 30% to 40% of those who get the vaccine reported improvements in their symptoms. “I’ve heard from people who say they no longer have ‘brain fog,’ their gastrointestinal problems have gone away, or they stopped suffering from the shortness of breath they’ve been living with since being diagnosed with COVID-19,” Iwasaki said.
It’s possible that the vaccine helps the immune system fight off residual virus, but researchers can only hypothesize, Iwasaki said.
Not all people with long COVID respond the same way to the vaccine. Some don’t notice any change, and 10% to 15% percent feel worse. But Iwasaki recommends they all get the vaccine, since it will protect them from getting COVID again.