When Mount Sinai Hospital opened its Center for Post-Covid Care in May, it was New York’s — and the country’s — first such facility. The doctors there expected to treat patients who had been severely ill or hospitalized. By that point, three months into the pandemic, they knew that the coronavirus could cause harm to many parts of the body beyond just the airways where infections most commonly begin. And they knew that medical treatments meant to save patients’ lives could also take a toll. Recovery from having been put on a ventilator, in particular, could be a lengthy process. Mount Sinai sought to support patients recovering from severe Covid-19 by giving them access to a multidisciplinary medical team that included lung, heart and kidney doctors, rehabilitation specialists and psychiatrists for those whose mental health might have been affected by their ordeals.
Hundreds of patients, most of them women, showed up soon after the center’s doors opened. To the doctors’ surprise, however, many of them had experienced only mild cases of Covid-19. They hadn’t been hospitalized. They were relatively young and otherwise in good health, without the underlying conditions like obesity and diabetes that are known to make Covid-19 worse. And yet, months after their bodies had seemingly fought off the coronavirus, they still felt quite ill. “We’ve heard of illnesses, viral illnesses, that have a prolonged postviral phase,” Zijian Chen, the head of Mount Sinai’s recovery center, told me. “But these usually don’t last for the months and months that we see here. And because of that, we’re a little surprised that this is happening. It tells us how much we don’t know about this illness.” The center has now seen more than 1,600 patients.
These patients have labeled themselves “Covid long-haulers.” What they’re suffering from, they say, is “long Covid.” As a group, they report a strange hodgepodge of symptoms, including fatigue, pain, shortness of breath, light sensitivity, exercise intolerance, insomnia, hearts that race inexplicably, diarrhea and cramping, memory problems and a debilitating “brain fog” that can at times make it hard to put a cogent sentence together. In many cases, these symptoms continue unabated from the acute phase of the illness — as if, on some level, the infection never really went away. And for a subset of patients, new symptoms emerge later, as if a different illness has established itself in their bodies.