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A used face mask sits on a stone path. The University of Georgia prepared for reopening campus to students for the fall semester on Aug. 9, 2020, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/ Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

Grace Hunnings was diagnosed with COVID-19 in October 2020. She experienced common symptoms such as body aches and loss of taste and smell, and quarantined at home. However, weeks later her symptoms became worse. She began to experience immense fatigue, brain fog and laziness.

In January, her symptoms heightened even more. She had a high heart rate and blood pressure, something she never thought she’d experience at her age. She decided to go to a cardiologist.

Hunnings received the diagnosis of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a condition that causes a person’s heart to speed up by at least 30 beats per minute when they stand up or lay down. Essentially, her body struggles to control its blood pressure and heart rate when she changes positions.

“The symptoms I have are the lightheadedness, inability to exercise, brain fog, vertigo, extreme sensitivity to loud noises and crowds — any type of social situation,” Hunnings, a senior at the University of Georgia majoring in real estate and finance, said. “My exercise — I’ve been able to build it up this year, but I started off just walking to the mailbox. I started over. Now I am able to walk for like 30 minutes max … Even sitting at dinner and talking to people and having to keep up a conversation really makes my symptoms worse.”

According to a New England Journal of Medicine article, “long-haul COVID” is the next public health disaster.

“Though most Americans may be able to do so, restoration of normality does not apply to the 10% to 30% of those who are still experiencing debilitating symptoms months after being infected with COVID-19,” according to the article. Hunnings is one of those people.

“With POTS, I was told that you want to stay sedentary, that you want to sleep, lay in bed all day and not exercise, but I was told that would make it worse. I have to kind of make myself exercise … even when I am lightheaded or having vertigo,” Hunnings said.

Dr. Nick Fox, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Athens Pulmonary, explained that most of these symptoms are still being researched and come from surveyed data.

“It [long-haul symptoms] can happen to anybody. Unfortunately, there have been reports of these symptoms happening in vaccinated individuals who have had breakthrough cases in COVID,” Fox said. 

He noted that long-haul COVID is rare in vaccinated people. A lot of people with lingering symptoms aren’t hospitalized, and studies show that they seem to be more common in women and younger people, he said.

Fox said the best way to prevent long-haul symptoms is to prevent acute infection by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and social distancing. Hunnings’ personal experience reflects this sentiment.

Hunnings has been instructed to push herself to perform everyday tasks and exercise. She also wears compression socks and had added more salt to her diet in order to control her symptoms. 

Although she never thought she would be affected by these long-haul symptoms, she hopes others who may be experiencing the same symptoms can recognize them and ask for help.

“I want to bring awareness to the fact that a lot of students get COVID and go back to school and they just aren’t the same … I can’t take in-person classes. I’m online. I am now registered with the DRC [Disability Resource Center],” Hunnings said. “I know people who aren’t vaccinated and I just would never want anyone to experience what I am experiencing.”

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