Studies underway to see if vaccine improves long-haul coronavirus symptoms


HONOLULU (KHON2) — Long-haul COVID-19 is another unknown mystery of the virus that leaves some survivors with COVID-like symptoms months after infection.

Vaccinated long-haulers are now saying their symptoms have improved and doctors are not quite sure what to make of it.

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Ewa Beach resident Sarah Brickson received her positive COVID-19 test result while the state was prepping for Hurricane Douglas on July 20, 2020.

“My biggest symptom was having a crazy headache, like I get migraines, but this, I felt like a stabbing pain, it was awful,” she recalled.

Queen’s Health Systems monitored her low-grade fever and headaches remotely. She said, her symptoms were mild but they continued into the fall.

“The after effects were worse than the physical being sick,” she said of the long-term impacts.

“Like even climbing up to the upper floor of my house, I would have to stop because I would be winded and that was concerning for me because I grew up playing sports and I’ve done two marathons and I knew this is not good,” Brickson said.

Her doctor told her about long-haul COVID-19 and said she could experience symptoms for the next six to nine months.

“We really don’t have any idea why some people seem to have lingering symptoms after COVID,” explained Dr. Toni Brayer, internal medicine doctor in California. “Some people have, as we know, no symptoms at all other people have severe symptoms, and then some who have mild symptoms.”

Brain fog, fatigue, muscle aches and lack of smell and taste are common long-term symptoms.

Brickson was able to get the Pfizer vaccine in January, 2021, and said she felt ill immediately after.

“And 36 hours later everything just broke,” she said while snapping her fingers. “My fever went away, and then I started to notice, hey, I have more energy, and I’m not relying on my rescue inhaler.”

She said, she was able to walk up her stairs easily without feeling winded.

She had joined a Facebook group with other COVID-19 survivors when she was diagnosed months ago. She said, more people reported improvements in their long-haul symptoms after getting vaccinated as well.

Doctors across the country are still unsure if the vaccine is a cure to long-haul COVID-19.

“We don’t know if it’s something that will just happen over time, people will get better and be associated with the vaccination,” explained Dr. Sandra Chang, John A Burns School of Medicine Tropical Medicine professor.

“We don’t know if this is the placebo effect because the vaccine has stimulated an immune response that may be knocked out any lingering inflammation that is there, we just don’t know,” explained Dr. Brayer.

Brickson hopes her story encourages other long-haulers to get vaccinated.

“As long as your doctor says it’s okay, I would do it,” she said.  “I mean, it definitely has helped me, and I am slowly returning back to things I enjoyed before COVID.”

Doctors said, the vaccine should not be viewed as a treatment at this time.

“The simplest explanation is that there may be some residual virus in individuals who are infected not enough for people to detect by PCR or the usual test for COVID-19,” explained Dr. Chang. “But a low level that continues to provide these inflammatory kind of responses and the symptoms that you see after many different viral illnesses, and so it’s possible that the vaccine is just clearing that low level of infection that may persist over time.”

“So people begin to experience some relief from those symptoms, so that is the simplest explanation, but it’s something that needs to be proven,” she continued.

She said, another explanation could be the vaccine resets the immune system.

“People who have these long term symptoms resemble individuals with auto immune diseases, or in in the types of symptoms that they experience, and so the vaccination might just kind of awaken and reset their immune response so that they’re no longer responding in a way that causes a lot of inflammation they may be redirecting their immune response to make antibodies against the virus and not so much just inflammatory response against the infection. And so what you see is a relief of symptoms because your immune response is not reacting in a negative way that produces these other types of effects,” she explained.

“The more that people talk about it, the more that they’re learning, you know, we’re all we’re all in this together. They’re all trying to learn about this whole thing at the same time as we are. So it’s, you know, it’s a good thing that people are talking about those situations,” Brickson said.

“It’ll be interesting in 10 years what they finally say about the prolonged effects of it,” Brickson added. “Is it just a six to nine month thing? Or is it you know, the rest of your life? We’ll see.”

“There are many things about COVID that we don’t know, and especially long-COVID, and there are active studies being initiated to determine what some of the problems are some of the potential treatments of these individuals,” Dr. Chang explained. “There are many different treatments that are being evaluated, and so hopefully in time we will be able to see relief for these patients.”

The National Institute of Health has been granted over $1 billion to study long-haul COVID-19 and vaccine treatment.

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