(This story is a joint effort between WRFI and The Ithaca Voice. The audio portion of this story, prepared by Fred Balfour, can be heard on Friday, Feb. 12 at 5 p.m. on WRFI’s new weekly News Magazine show or on 88.1 in Ithaca and 91.9 in Watkins Glen. When it is available, the audio will be posted here as well.)

ITHACA, N.Y.—One of the many clouds looming over the coronavirus pandemic has been the notion that even when a person tests negative after testing positive and seems to have nominally recovered from the virus that has ravaged the world for the better portion of a year, their long-term health is still at risk—known as the “long-haul” impacts that patients may have from a COVID-19 case.

Specific evidence of the long-term impacts of the virus is still being gathered on a worldwide scale, primarily because there hasn’t been a long enough time period since the pandemic began to analyze exactly what conditions could develop as a result of battling COVID-19. Some ongoing health complications, though, have become frequently linked to bouts with the coronavirus, including a lasting (though not necessarily permanent) loss of taste and smell, lung tissue problems and potential cardiac issues. Exactly how long-term these impacts will prove to be is at the center of the ongoing monitoring.

In a combined interview with local independent radio station WRFI and The Ithaca Voice, Cayuga Health Systems CEO Dr. Martin Stallone explained how his medical team is monitoring the possibility of long-term complications of patients who contract COVID-19, and adapting to treat people who do experience such effects. Locally, he said there isn’t quite enough information available yet to make any definitive proclamations, calling the extent of the evidence “anecdotal” because of the small sample size. He did, though, say that the treatment of conditions that could theoretically result from COVID-19 are difficult to determine, since they could also potentially stem from another, unrelated illness.

“It certainly might affect the trajectory and the duration of the chronic condition,” Stallone said. “Again, we don’t have experience, so I can’t tell you that something’s going to last ‘forever’ with a patient or the patient’s the rest of their life. But it could instruct the recovery potential and what we expect for the duration and how it would eventually, spontaneously recover or not. But then there’s on the other point (..) for instance, if there was an impact of the pump function of the heart, from COVID, that may be treated in very common ways from pump problems that are related to ischemic heart disease are blockages in the arteries leading to the heart. So I think that it could lead to common problems. And it might give insight, that is, if the problem was from COVID, that it might resolve in a time frame that is dissimilar from the problem being caused by a different root cause.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, probably the country’s foremost government expert on the COVID-19 pandemic, has also lent his voice to the concern over long-haul symptoms, detailing fatigue and brain fog impacts on a recent MSNBC appearance.

“They are virologically okay,” Fauci said. “The virus is no longer identified in them, but they have persistence of symptoms that can be debilitating — extreme fatigue, muscle aches, temperature disregulation. Some of them even have situations where what they call brain fog, where it`s very difficult for them to focus or to concentrate. It can be really quite disturbing.”

Stallone also confirmed that there has been at least one instance of reinfection in Tompkins County, though the significance of such an occurrence is, like most things with COVID-19, unclear, similar to whether or not reinfection presents a higher risk of long-haul effects. He said the reinfections could have been a result of the first infection being relatively mild, meaning the body’s immune system didn’t have enough experience fighting against the virus to build up an immunity against the second infection.

“So the body didn’t develop a lasting durable, complete immunity, allowing them to be reinfected,” he said. “Whereas maybe those who had more serious initial infections are better immunized against the secondary infection. (…) That relationship between the two different infections is not fully known. What I can say is that we know that there are people in our community who have been infected twice, and those two infections seem to be separate events.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com