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How many Idahoans have long COVID? New data gives us a hint.

This colorized scanning electron micrograph image shows a COVID-19 patient’s cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (purple). (Courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
This colorized scanning electron micrograph image shows a COVID-19 patient’s cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (purple). (Courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Health care system is still trying to understand ‘long hauler’ COVID survivors

Boise jewelry artist Mike Rogers made it through several waves of COVID-19 outbreaks without getting sick — until mid-June, when the omicron variant caught him.

Six weeks after his breakthrough coronavirus infection, Rogers isn’t back to normal. His brain feels as though it’s encased in plastic wrap, being squeezed and buzzed with electrical currents.

Rogers is now among the ranks of Idahoans who survive coronavirus infections but are left with post-COVID health problems.

There is no official data on how many Idahoans recover from COVID-19 only to experience “long COVID” for weeks or months. But new data obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun suggests it is not rare.

What does ‘long COVID’ mean?

Studies have identified a range of post-COVID health problems.

There’s the hard-to-define “long hauler” condition that comes with a grab bag of symptoms: erratic heartbeat, breathing problems, fatigue, “brain fog,” altered senses and more.

For patients whose COVID-19 puts them in the hospital or on life support, post-COVID recovery can mean months of physical therapy, rehabilitation and ongoing medical care.

And some COVID-19 patients will later develop life-altering health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, heart failure or strokes.

“When this whole pandemic recedes, we’re going to be left with the legacy of this pandemic — a legacy of chronic disease,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, chief researcher for the VA St. Louis Healthcare System in Missouri, in the March edition of Nature, an international science and technology journal. Al-Aly co-authored a study that found a 40% increased risk of diabetes among veterans who had COVID-19 compared with those who hadn’t been infected.

The research team previously found higher rates of cardiovascular conditions and kidney disease, too, Nature reported.

The size of the long-COVID burden

How much of a legacy of chronic disease will COVID-19 leave in Idaho?

The Sun asked Idaho’s largest health insurers — Idaho Medicaid and Blue Cross of Idaho — for data that might offer some insight into the size of “long COVID” in Idaho.

Last year, as it became clear that COVID-19 cast a long shadow on long-term health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved a new diagnosis code for doctors to use on medical claims, starting in October.

The Sun asked the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare how many people enrolled in Idaho Medicaid have received that diagnosis.

The state’s claims data showed 1,401 people on Idaho Medicaid with the diagnosis as of July. At least 259 of them were previously hospitalized for COVID-19; the rest had no record of hospitalization in their Medicaid claims.

But that is likely a drastic underestimate of the true number of Idahoans with post-COVID health conditions.

The vast majority of Idahoans aren’t on Medicaid, so the claims data reflects just a small cross-section of the state.

And within that cross-section, the tally is limited to Medicaid recipients who received medical care for their post-COVID syndrome; and whose doctors included the diagnosis code in their Medicaid claim; and only for medical claims filed since October.

Blue Cross of Idaho also told the Sun earlier this year that its claims showed an increase of 3.7% to 5.5% in diabetes and cardiovascular disease since before the pandemic, although it’s unclear how much of that is direct fallout from COVID-19.

Health care may take ‘decades’ to stabilize

Deaths and critical illness are much less common in the current wave of COVID-19 than a year ago. But the pandemic’s legacy of chronic illness could stretch into the middle of this century, according to analysts.

Fitch Ratings, the credit rating agency, warned last summer that “long after the acute phase of the pandemic has concluded,” people will need more health care for long-term damage from COVID-19.

That will drive up medical costs and insurance premiums “for decades,” Fitch said. “These costs will emerge from the necessary addition (of more clinics) to deal with ongoing treatment of chronic conditions related to potentially permanent damage caused by COVID-19.”

It may add pressure to an already strained and understaffed health care system, Fitch said.

One of Idaho’s newest post-COVID patients is experiencing that firsthand.

Mike Rogers slept almost all day and night, every day, in the weeks following his COVID-19 illness.

“After a couple of weeks, I was getting surprised it wasn’t over,” he said. Two weeks became three weeks, then four.

Rogers made an appointment with his nurse practitioner, who discovered that COVID-19 “had spiked my blood pressure astronomically,” he said. He immediately began taking blood pressure medication.

''I couldn’t figure out why my head felt so bad, and I think I really narrowly avoided a stroke. … I’m still just exhausted. I mean, like, holy crap, I’ve never been so tired in my life.''

– Mike Rogers, a Boise artist who has lingering symptoms weeks after COVID-19

That helped a bit, he said. But almost two months later, he sleeps 11 hours or more, with naps on the couch in his studio.

The odd sensation of pressure and electricity in his head hasn’t gone away, he said.

A few weeks ago, he got a referral to the post-COVID clinic in Boise, operated by St. Luke’s Health System. Then, he got a referral to a neurologist.

The clinic was fully booked, he said, and he’s still waiting for a call back from the neurologist.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.