More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home, closed businesses and turned the world upside down, the world now looks, in many ways, pretty close to the way it did before March 2020.
COVID-19 never went away. While AdventHealth would not release current figures, Halifax Health said its hospitals have “consistently five to 10 patients a day” who are positive with COVID and need hospitalization.
It’s a far cry from the hundreds of people who were hospitalized every day in 2020 and 2021. Cases and deaths have decreased, as people have built resistance because of vaccines, and from fighting off the virus itself.
The federal government has declared victory over the pandemic. Across Florida, mask mandates and other COVID-related protections are not only a thing of the past, but in some cases illegal to impose.
While some form of normalcy has returned for many, others are still fighting for some semblance of their pre-COVID life — thanks to lingering side effects commonly referred to as “long COVID.”
DeLandite Jessica Coffield is one of those people.
“There’s two versions now,” Coffield said of herself. “There’s the pre-COVID and the post-COVID.”
Pre-COVID Jessica was heavily involved with the DeLand & Greater West Volusia Chamber of Commerce, she was an upstanding member of the Downtown DeLand Rotary Club, and her business, Endless Possibilities Life Coaching Services, was growing.
Coffield even had a leg up on other businesses when the pandemic began — she was already using the internet to offer online services and remote sessions with her clients.
The Coffield family was probably more COVID-aware than many, she said, but they did their best to keep living their lives.
“And then I got sick,” Coffield said.
That was in August 2021, more than a year after the pandemic became a global concern and the first confirmed cases appeared in West Volusia.
Coffield’s case wasn’t particularly bad, she said. After five days, she felt mostly back to normal. She stayed away from her office a little while longer — just to be safe, she said — and then Coffield was back to business as usual with her busy life.
A few weeks later, things didn’t seem right.
It started as she went to leave her Downtown DeLand office at 101 N. Woodland Blvd.
“I had a presentation, a speech I was going to give across the street, so I went to walk down the stairs. I went to take the second step and my body couldn’t remember how to do it,” she recalled. “I was a shaking mess by the time I got to the bottom.”
She continued, “That happened for a week. It was like my brain didn’t know how to communicate with my body.”
That was just the beginning of strange symptoms that appeared and disappeared too fast to begin to treat them or see a doctor.
“It really was almost like once a week something new was happening,” Coffield said, from brain fog to dizziness to difficulty understanding basic concepts and written words.
“Literally, letters,” she said. “I would write them backwards. Talk would be ‘t-la-k’ instead of ‘t-a-l-k.’ My sentence structure would flip-flop.”
But Coffield kept pushing herself. She was a busy woman with too many commitments to start dropping things due to unexplained symptoms that, for the most part, changed and shifted from week to week.
By February 2022, things were coming to a head. With an even busier schedule than normal due to big Rotary events, Coffield was exhausted.
“I was becoming more and more strained trying to keep up with my load and not let anything go,” she said.
After her teenage daughter was involved in a car crash — her daughter was OK, Coffield said — she couldn’t take it anymore.
“After that point, all of the symptoms started coming at once,” she remembered.
From then on, Coffield had to admit that something was different in her life. Unable to keep up with her pre-COVID pace, she had to begin taking steps back or risk burnouts that would leave her down and out for days at a time.
“I kept thinking it was going to get better, but it was not going to get better unless I changed something about my life, and that became very apparent,” Coffield said.
She began seeing a neurologist, and, by the summer of 2022, started stepping back from various responsibilities. She loved the Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, but she couldn’t keep up.
“It’s like I aged. I’m 43, so I was 41 when I caught this. It’s like I’m in my 70s,” Coffield said. “Me and my grandmother — who’s in her 80s — are having conversations about relatable life experiences, because I can’t walk without thinking about my balance, and … that’s her day-to-day life.”
But worst of all, Coffield said, she felt like she lost a part of herself.
She went from a happy, healthy, involved and in-shape 43-year-old to taking steps back from much of her life just to stay upright.
“I lost me,” she said. “Everything that was so tangibly who I was — which I love; I love myself, I love this space, I love my time — I either can’t touch, because I can’t physically do it, or I’m not confident that I’m going to be able to do it, or it’s not accessible because I’m so tired.”
Will pre-COVID Jessica return?
“The question is, is that still there? Can I get that back?” Coffield said. “That’s the hardest part.”
One in 18,000
Jessica Coffield’s story isn’t unique. According to AdventHealth Central Florida, the current estimate of people who develop long COVID symptoms after a bout with the virus is around 6 percent.
By the hospital system’s count, as of January 2023, that would mean more than 18,000 people in Central Florida have lingering symptoms of the virus.
Symptoms to look out for:
Fatigue, Symptoms that worsen after physical or mental effort, Shortness of breath, Chest pain, Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes called “brain fog”), Depression or anxiety, Dizziness, Problems sleeping, Stomach pain, Joint or muscle pain, Changes in menstrual cycles
—Some of the symptoms associated with the long-term effects of COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Long-haul COVID is a constellation of symptoms that is not explained by an alternative diagnosis,” AdventHealth’s Dr. Dwayne Gordon explained in January. “So, after a thorough workup, you haven’t found an alternative diagnosis — and also lasting at least three months from the initial diagnosis.”
Gordon led the opening of AdventHealth Orlando’s clinic specifically for patients dealing with long COVID symptoms.
Like COVID-19 itself, long COVID presents itself differently from patient to patient, Gordon said, with some patients developing sleep apnea, some needing physical therapy and others having increased anxiety and depression.
“Though it’s a hard entity to describe, it doesn’t mean it’s not real,” he said.
Three years on
With so much left up to chance when COVID-19 is contracted, doctors still have a prevailing message about the virus.
“The best treatment is prevention … ,” Gordon said. “We want to tell people, you know what, be as careful as possible, of course, within reason. Wear masks, wash your hands, certainly immunization is very important in trying to prevent severe COVID and prevent COVID in general.”
Prevention can be especially important, because recent research — a November 2022 study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis — suggests that repeated infections with COVID-19 could lead to a better chance of contracting long COVID.
Worried you might have long-haul COVID?
Consult with a physician or contact the AdventHealth post-COVID clinic by phone, 407-821-3560, or by email, CFD.PostCovidClinic@adventhealth.com
“Without ambiguity, our research showed that getting an infection a second, third or fourth time contributes to additional health risks in the acute phase, meaning the first 30 days after infection, and in the months beyond, meaning the long COVID phase,” Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, senior author of the study, said in a Washington University news release.
That’s one reason DeLandite Jessica Coffield is doing her best to avoid getting the virus again.
“I don’t want to isolate myself from the world,” she said. “I miss people … but I’m still careful, and terrified, and think about ‘Should I eat at a buffet, should I do this, should I do that?’ But I don’t want to live my life in fear.”
Things are looking up for Coffield. Even though she has had to change so much of her life to get to this point, she’s optimistic.
“Now, my life is about negotiations,” she said. “Everything is a negotiation.”
She’s learned her limits, but she’s working to push past them. Little things, like making sure she gets enough sleep and exercise, have helped a lot, Coffield said.
But other small changes would mean the world to her, she said, like being able to get a handicap tag for her car so she could park closer to the front of grocery stores.
She hopes there will be a change in how society treats people with COVID-induced disabilities.
“I don’t know what the future looks like for us. If this is something I can’t overcome — and other long-haulers cannot overcome — then there has to be a different support in the community like there is for MS [multiple sclerosis] and stuff like that,” Coffield said. “The culture is going to have to shift and be readdressed as far as the actual, physical needs people might have, without there being tests, documentation, like ‘Oh yeah, you do actually struggle with walking … .’”
AdventHealth doctors agree that a change might be in order.
“We need to invest and say, ‘We need to focus on this because it’s costing the economy trillions of dollars,’” Dr. Dwayne Gordon said, “and it’s costing people their quality of life.’”