COVID-19 long-haulers warn Albertans about chronic health risks after infection

COVID-19 long-haulers are reminding people that anyone can contract the virus and it can have long-term, unknown effects.

Fitness levels, mobility, taste, smell and mental health compromised months later

Woman running down a road.
Even young and healthy people can be infected with COVID-19 and can suffer from long-term health issues as result. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

The extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and headache eventually went away, but they were replaced by other long-term complications like post-viral arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome. 

Ashley Antonio suffers from ongoing long-haul symptoms, more than a year after she was infected with COVID-19. 

In March 2020, Antonio said it started with regular flu symptoms. Five or six weeks later, she felt worse and ended up in the emergency room with a high fever and hallucinations. 

"There are many days now still, over 14 months later, that I just can't physically get out of bed."

Antonio, a criminal lawyer in Edmonton, suffers from cognitive lapses, at one point she couldn't remember her husband's name or sibling's name. 

"What scared me most was the brain fog issue," Antonio said. "I was at the point, and still am some days unfortunately, I couldn't remember what things were called." 

Antonio told her story on a public webinar organized by the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association Tuesday night. 

She wanted to share her experience to help raise awareness that anyone can get COVID-19. 

"I think I also naively thought I'm young and healthy and eat well and work out and this isn't going to happen to me," she told the forum. "It's disturbing to realize that it can happen to you and being young and healthy doesn't mean anything."

Even pouring a glass of tap water smells awful- Jen Elliot, COVID-19 long-hauler

Antonio said the lingering and varying symptoms make it feel like she's on permanent lockdown. 

"I don't know if I'll ever be able to travel again," she said. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to exercise again." 

Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room physician in Edmonton and Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician, moderated the webinar to help raise awareness that anyone can contract the virus. 

Mithani said a lot of the focus on COVID-19 tends to be on deaths and the number of people in hospital. 

"Not enough people are talking about the ongoing effects of what happens to people who didn't necessarily even have to go into hospital at their initial COVID, during their acute phase of their COVID illness."

Jen Elliot, a senior planner with Edmonton Public Schools, said she tested positive at the end of November but had very mild symptoms to begin with — some brain fog and a headache. 

Then she lost her sense of taste and smell for about six weeks. 

In late January, the sense of taste returned but many things still tasted like chemicals. 

"Things like onions, garlic, coffee, even pouring a glass of tap water smells awful," Elliot told the forum. 

Elliot said she used to eat just about anything. 

"And now [I] feel like I'm a five-year-old kid just sticking to the same basic meals over and over because everything is just so gross." 

Elliot said she and her partner were very careful — staying home as much as possible, wearing masks, disinfecting and adhering to the physical distancing rules.

She was reluctant to share her story because she didn't want people to think she was flouting the rules but wants to encourage people to speak up. 

Elliot said none of her close contacts tested positive and she still doesn't know how she contracted the virus. 

"Even low-risk activity doesn't mean no risk."