Jonah McGarva loves music. He dedicated his life to sound, working as an audio engineer in music production and broadcasting. He was an avid guitarist. At the age of 40, McGarva was newly married and living his dreams as a producer of a national radio program based in Vancouver.
Then he contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and his life hasn’t been the same since.
“It felt like the worst cold or flu I’ve ever had. I had unbelievable constipation, coughing fits, gastrointestinal problems – I couldn’t eat anything, I couldn’t hold anything down. It was scary. And it put me in a position for two weeks where I was constantly struggling with the thought of whether or not to go to the hospital.”
For months after his infection, McGarva struggled with severe fatigue and brain fog that made it impossible for him to get out of bed. His symptoms persist to this day.
“I can’t even sit in front of my computer for more than 20 minutes without my brain shorting out. I can’t play guitar for more than 10 minutes without my brain telling me there’s too much going on. Listening to music, watching movies, that’s hard. My brain used to love all these complex storylines but now I’m so lost. It’s really distressing.”
Up to 60% of people report COVID symptoms after 12 weeks
It is difficult to determine how many people may have had COVID for long as access to publicly funded PCR testing has been restricted in many countries to maintain supplies.
In BC, only those hospitalized, pregnant, moderately or severely immunocompromised, seniors, and those working in high-risk areas such as healthcare. Everyone else will have to rely on rapid testing, which wasn’t widely used in BC until Spring 2022. Positive rapid tests are not included in provincial COVID statistics.
Persistent symptoms after COVID infection are common. Health Canada reports that 80 percent of adults reported one or more symptoms in the short term — four to 12 weeks after infection — and 60 percent reported ongoing symptoms after 12 weeks. Ten percent said they were unable to return to work because of their symptoms.
dr Angela Cheung, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, said patients with long COVID had over 200 symptoms.
“Fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, rapid heart rates, trouble sleeping, and mental health issues are common,” she told Black Press Media in a phone interview.
Cheung said testing is not required to clinically diagnose someone with long COVID. Patients may be diagnosed with a “presumptive history of COVID,” meaning they likely had COVID but were unable to get a positive test. This diagnosis can be made based on patients presenting with symptoms known to be associated with a long COVID.
As far as treatment goes, there are options, but they don’t work for everyone.
“It depends on your symptoms. Rest and pace work well for fatigue and breathing exercises work for shortness of breath. When people have a cough or wheeze or congestion, steroid nasal sprays are very helpful,” Cheung said.
Cheung recommends patients connect with clinical care providers to manage their long-lasting COVID symptoms.
BC’s post-COVID clinics are ‘helpful’ but cures remain elusive
When he first became ill, there was little information about Long-COVID, leading McGarva to co-found Long COVID Canada, a support group for people living with the disease.
The group has advocated for more research, better access to clinical care, more support and more collaboration across Canada on long-COVID-related issues.
McGarva was eventually able to access a post-COVID-19 clinic – a network of clinics across BC to treat people with the condition – but it took him three tries to get in after being denied access in November 2020 and summer 2021 had been.
“They are informative. You are helpful. They were able to provide information on fatigue, tiredness, post-exercise discomfort and how to manage your priorities in your day to make sure you don’t pay two or three more days for it,” he said. “They seem to be aware of and interested in the latest research on long COVID.”
Although the clinics were helpful to McGarva, they could not cure him.
As of April 1, there have been 5,288 referrals to BC post-COVID-19 clinics. The Department of Health said 1,987 was “inappropriate” because of timing, eligibility or staff unable to contact the patient.
The province dropped the requirement to present a positive PCR test to gain access to post-COVID clinics. Patients with symptoms three months after infection must be referred to the clinics by a family doctor, doctor or nurse.
In a statement to Black Press Media, the Health Ministry said the province will continue to evaluate post-COVID clinics.
“All patients in need of support post COVID-19 will continue to be connected to the services they need to support them in their recovery. There is still work to be done and we are learning more and more about this virus and its long-term effects,” the ministry said.