For  nearly three years, people around the world have dealt with COVID-19, and while for some the after-effects are limited, others, like Janine Hopkins have been left with the debilitating condition known as long COVID.

Hopkins contracted the virus early last September, 2022 and was hit hard.

"I had the usual constellation of symptoms," said Hopkins. "A high fever, a very sore throat, really significant head pain, really significant head pressure, high pitched ringing in my ears and a lot of gastrointestinal complications as well. "

Hopkins said by the end of the second week, she lost 5.4 kilograms. and was extremely unwell. She said she was surprised at the severity of her case as she works in healthcare was fully masked in most work and social situations and fully vaccinated.

At the end of the second week, Hopkins was actually getting sicker.

"I started to develop a thing called Ataxia, which is commonly referred to as a staggering walk," she said. "So my equilibrium was off and I was literally bouncing off walls trying to get a bit of exercise in just to keep my blood flowing."

When Hopkins was four weeks into her sickness, she began to suspect her case of COVID -19 was not a regular one but long COVID.

Long COVID, also called post-COVID-19 condition, is a group of 200 or more medical issues that can linger or kick in months after an initial infection. These issues range from fatigue to shortness of breath to a sense of "brain fog."

A fall report from Statistics Canada suggests nearly 15 per cent of people who've contracted COVID-19 say they've experienced these type of lingering symptoms after their initial infection. 

A large-scale study released out of Israel this month explores the spectrum of symptoms, who's impacted and for how long.

Published in the British Medical Journal, the peer-reviewed research looked at nearly two million medical records, and matched up around 300,000 people who had lab-confirmed infections with another 300,000 who didn't test positive for SARS-CoV-2.

The researchers found that various types of health issues after a mild case of COVID lingered for several months, but cleared up within the first year after an infection.

Certain symptoms, including weakness and difficulty breathing, were more likely to persist.

Janine Hopkins on Superior Morning
Janine Hopkins, right, speaks with CBC Superior morning show host Mary-Jean Cormier about here battle with the impacts of long COVID. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

Hopkins said her long COVID symptoms included a headache every day that didn't resolve and lasted for about two months. She also said she experienced significant head pressure.

On top of that, Hopkins developed a high pitched ringing in her ears which has resulted in hearing loss.

"I still have ringing, I hear it all day, 24 hours a day," she said. "So I'm using a white noise machine to try to psychologically help me contend with it now."

Hopkins said the the Ataxia resolved after about two months, as did the headaches and some of the head pressure resolved as well.

But what she has been left with is a thing called Post-Exertional Malaise (PEM).

Hopkins said this has had the most profound impact on her life so far. Any kind of exertion, whether it be cognitive or physical, can leave her exhausted and ill.

"It might be trying to watch a movie or scrolling on my phone," she said."So anything upsetting that might cause me to worry or feel distress, or any physical exertion at all, will cause PEM, which is an exacerbation of symptoms. And the tricky part of it is you're not aware of it until about 12 to 48 hours after, so I'm not able to work."

Hopkins is a registered social worker and psychotherapist, and said she has been trying to put her own skills to work on herself. But she said she has also explored nearly every option she could think of to help her. She said she has gone to her family doctor, a chiropractor, nurse practitioner and a naturopath to help find relief.

Now she has a referral to the long COVID clinic run by St Joseph's Care Group in Thunder Bay. 

"Part of what attracts me to that is that it's a multi-disciplinary team," said Hopkins. "So I'm hoping to access perhaps some support around looking at what I can do around trying to strength train a tiny bit without causing a flare up or a crash. So I'm just waiting."

A patient's personal belongings are seen lining the window as a nurse tends to a patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Humber River Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 28, 2021. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

St. Joseph's Hospital began operating the post-COVID Clinic since July 2021.

The clinic is accessed by referral from a primary care provider, and is for people over the age of 18 who are continuing to experience unresolved symptoms for more than 4 weeks.

In an email to CBC, Dr. Peter de Bakker, St. Joseph's Care Group's Chief of Staff, had this to say about the ongoing work the clinic is doing:

"We have learned a tremendous amount about how to prevent and treat COVID-19 over the past three years. The vast majority of people will fully recover from COVID-19. Vaccination and anti-virals are helping to reduce the severe outcomes that we saw earlier in the pandemic, with fewer people requiring hospitalization," he said. "Now that the majority of Canadians have had COVID-19, primary care providers and other clinicians have become experienced in treating post-COVID conditions.

"The majority of post-COVID clinic patients have had their symptoms investigated and appropriately managed prior to coming to our clinic, but we are seeing a subset with symptoms persisting one year out and longer. The research on treating these conditions is ongoing."

Sena Honke, a communications specialist with the St. Joseph Care Group, said the clinic has seen more than 60 clients since it opened.

Honke noted wait times for for the clinic fluctuate based on demand, and at present, it can take up to 4 months for the first appointment and people with most urgent needs are seen first.

Janine Hopkins smart watches
Janine Hopkins now monitors her vital signs using two smart watches post COVID. She says over exertion can lead to what is known as Post Exertional Malaise (PEM) (Gord Ellis/CBC)

Hopkins said she is doing her best to adjust to her new normal. She wears two smart watches to monitor her health, heart rate and other vital signs. She has also sought out support groups, including a Canadian long COVID support network made  people from right across the country who share similar daily struggles.

She hopes she can soon shake the impact of long COVID and reclaim the active life she loved.

"I hope to return to my work and to my private practice. I hope to return to a fitness lifestyle. I hope to return to some kind of a social life. But I don't know."

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