Jonah McGarva loves music. He devoted his life to sound, working as an audio engineer in music production and radio broadcasting. He was an avid guitar player. At 40-years-old, McGarva was freshly married and living his dreams as a producer of a national radio program based in Vancouver.
Then he caught COVID-19 in March 2020 and his life hasn’t been the same since.
“It felt like the worst cold or flu I had ever experienced. I had incredible congestion, coughing attacks, gastrointestinal issues — I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t keep anything down. It was scary. And it put me in a position over two weeks where I was constantly fighting with the idea of whether or not I should go to the hospital.”
For months after his infection, McGarva battled severe fatigue and brain fog that left him unable to even 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 short-circuiting. I can’t play guitar for more than 10 minutes without my brain saying there’s too much going on. Listening to music, watching movies, it’s hard. My brain used to love all these complex storylines but I’m lost so much now. It’s really distressing.”
Up to 60% of people report COVID symptoms after 12 weeks
It’s difficult to determine how many people may have long COVID, as access to publicly funded PCR tests has been limited to maintain supply in many jurisdictions.
In B.C., only people who are in hospital, pregnant, moderately or severely immunocompromised, seniors and people who work in high-risk settings like health-care. Everyone else has to rely on rapid tests, which were not widely available in B.C. until spring 2022. Positive rapid tests are not included in provincial COVID statistics.
Lingering symptoms after a COVID infection are common. Health Canada reports 80 per cent of adults reported one or more symptoms in the short-term —four to 12 weeks after infection — and 60 per cent reported prolonged symptoms after 12 weeks. Ten per cent said they were unable to return to work because of their symptoms.
Dr. Angela Cheung, a professor in medicine at the University of Toronto, said patients with long COVID are presenting with over 200 symptoms.
“Fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, fast heart rates, sleep disturbances and mental health issues are common,” she told Black Press Media in a phone interview.
Cheung said testing isn’t required to clinically diagnose someone with long COVID. Patients can be diagnosed with a “presumptive COVID history”, meaning that they likely had COVID, but were unable to obtain a positive test. That diagnosis can be made based on patients presenting symptoms known to be associated with long COVID.
As far as treatment goes, there are options, but they don’t work for everyone.
“It depends on what their symptoms are. Resting and pacing work well for fatigue, and breathing exercises work for shortness of breath. If people have a cough, or wheezing or congestion, steroid nasal sprays are quite helpful,” Cheung said.
Cheung recommends that patients connect with clinical care providers to treat their long COVID symptoms.
B.C.’s Post-COVID Clinics ‘helpful’, but cures remain elusive
When he first became sick, there was little information about long-COVID, which led McGarva to co-found Long COVID Canada, a support group for people living with the condition.
The group has been advocating for more research, better access to clinical care, more support and more collaboration across Canada on issues related to long COVID.
McGarva was eventually able to access a Post COVID-19 Clinic — a network of clinics across B.C. to treat people with the condition— but it took him three tries to get in after being denied in November 2020 and the summer of 2021.
“They are informative. They are helpful. They’ve been able to provide information about exhaustion, fatigue, post-exertional malaise and how to deal with your priorities in your day to make sure that you’re not paying for it for two or three more days,” he said. “They seem to be aware and keen about the latest research that’s out there on long COVID.”
Though the clinics have been helpful for McGarva, they haven’t been able to cure him.
As of April 1, there have been 5,288 referrals to Post COVID-19 Clinics in B.C. The Ministry of Health said of those, 1,987 were “not appropriate” due to timing, eligibility or staff being unable to contact the patient.
The province dropped the requirement to provide a positive PCR test to be able to access Post-COVID Clinics. Patients with symptoms three months after infection must be referred to the clinics by a primary care provider, physician or nurse practitioner.
In a statement to Black Press Media, the Ministry of Health said the province will be evaluating the post-COVID clinics on an ongoing basis.
“All patients who require supports for post-COVID-19 will continue to be connected to the services they need to aid them in their recovery. There’s more work to do and we continue to learn more about this virus and its long-term impacts,” the ministry said.