The Taos Community Medical COVID Task Force is a volunteer coalition of local healthcare providers and community partners working to build collaborations to strengthen our local medical response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. In this column, local healthcare providers will be answering common questions about COVID-19 in our community. If you have a question that you would like to submit, please email it to info@taoscovidtaskforce.com. Also, please check out taoscovidtaskforce.com for the latest medical information about COVID-19 in Taos.

What is a 'COVID Long-Hauler?'

"Long-COVID Syndrome" or "Long-Haulers" is a term for people who continue to feel unwell after 3-6 weeks of initial illness. About 10 percent of all infected people continue to have bothersome symptoms after three weeks, and a smaller number for several months. They may have any or several symptoms: fatigue, poor exercise tolerance, shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, headache, "brain fog," nausea, muscle pain and even anxiety and depression. This syndrome is more common with severe or moderate COVID disease but can also happen after mild disease, or infection without symptoms. Symptoms can wax and wane, or be persistent. Scientists have named this syndrome "Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection" (PASC).

Why do the symptoms stay around so long in some people?

COVID is a new disease and there is a lot we don't know yet. The virus can damage the heart, lungs, brain and other organs. Currently, scientists are unsure how many people have experienced prolonged symptoms or why. Research will help us understand the underlying cause, and why some people are more vulnerable to developing them.

Are they still contagious?

Contagiousness probably goes away after about 10 days. Again, we are not sure yet. Most long-haulers test negative for active infection despite their lingering symptoms.

If someone is experiencing long-term symptoms, what should they do?

If you have tested positive OR think you have been infected and are experiencing continued symptoms, please contact your primary care practitioner for care and advice. Some symptoms can be improved with treatment. A recommended website for information and support is Survivor Corps https://www.survivorcorps.com

Should long-haulers still get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes! The CDC recommends that everyone be vaccinated. If someone has tested positive, they should wait for 10 days after their symptoms disappear before getting a COVID vaccine.

Can the vaccines help?

There are anecdotal reports that some people have had their persistent symptoms resolve after being vaccinated. Why? One theory is that some people may retain a low-level infection, even though they produce a negative PCR test. The idea is that the vaccine may "jump start" the immune system to finally clear the infection. Another is that the vaccine may "reset" the immune response to produce less inflammation - too much inflammation causes the symptoms. The National Institutes of Health will invest 1.15 billion dollars over four years to study the prolonged health effects of COVID-19 infection.

What can I do to prevent Long COVID Syndrome?

Prevent the spread of COVID! Wash your hands, wear a snug-fitting mask in public spaces, and maintain a physical distance of 6 feet. Sign up for a vaccine at vaccineNM.org or call 1-855-600-3453. If most people in Taos get the vaccine, the virus will have nowhere to go, we will all be much safer, and fewer people will suffer from Long-COVID!

Also, if you or someone you know gets infected, please call your primary care practitioner. There is a treatment (monoclonal antibodies) that can be very helpful for some people.

Dr. Deb van Willigen is a board-certified family physician at Taos Medical Group. She provides primary care to adults and has a special interest in addiction medicine. Juliana Anastasoff, MS is a public health educator and the Health Extension Officer in the n​orth for the UNM-Health Sciences Center. They are both active members of the Taos Community Medical COVID Task Force.

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