Thousands Of Young People In LA Could Suffer From ‘Long COVID.’ Here’s One Teen’s Saga
On a Monday morning last August, 15-year-old Lucas Garcia got ready to leave his family’s apartment for the second week of his sophomore year. “Everything seemed normal,” he recalls. “But shortly after we were about to walk out the door, I started feeling sick. And I started running to the restroom.”
Lucas and his parents thought it may have been food poisoning, but a test at a local urgent care confirmed — it was COVID.
“The doctor starts to go into, Keep him at home for two weeks, don't let him outside,” says Lucas’ father, Robert Garcia. “But when he was telling me this, I could not believe what I was hearing.”
Robert was shocked because the entire family already had COVID in 2020 and had since been fully vaccinated. Robert couldn’t believe that Lucas contracted COVID again.
“They talk about these [breakthrough cases] and you think, It’s not going to be us,” Robert says. “But this time, it was.”
Lucas was the only one in the family to contract COVID a second time, and it was much worse than his previous infection. He suffered from severe head and body aches. He became so sensitive to sound that he asked his parents to whisper. The TV was too bright to watch. Walking to the bathroom left him exhausted. As the weeks dragged on, his father recognized the symptoms.
“Both me and my wife had long COVID,” Robert said. “For me, it felt like months.”
The Garcias connected the dots even before the doctors did.
Parents Confused When Long COVID Symptoms Surface
Studies estimate that 10-to-20% of children infected with the coronavirus will develop so-called long COVID — a term coined by patients to describe the lingering symptoms they experience after the initial infection.
With more than half a million infections among children in L.A. County since the pandemic began, tens of thousands of kids could be affected in some way, according to Dr. Sindhu Mohandas, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“The problem, however, is that many children's initial infection may be asymptomatic,” Dr. Mohandas says. “And they may then have the symptoms for which there is no clear cause.”
Often children will complain of being tired and unable to concentrate at school or keep up physically while playing sports, sending parents to the doctor’s office numerous times.
“Sometimes it involves several visits to their pediatrician trying to figure out what’s going on before people start thinking about linking it to COVID,” Dr. Mohandas says.
For Some A Full Recovery Takes Months
Long COVID symptoms vary widely but include fatigue, cognitive problems, anxiety, depression and insomnia, as well as heart, lung, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Lucas had almost all of these symptoms for months.
“There was no visible sign of me getting better or me going to be able to improve,” says Lucas, “until I got to Children's Hospital and then they said, We specialize in this sort of thing, so there's a chance we can help you. And just a small chance was a miracle to me at that time.”
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is one of the few hospitals with a clinical program dedicated to long COVID recovery care. With no medically agreed upon biomarkers to determine if someone has long COVID, Dr. Mohandas says the first step is to rule out other diseases. She says most families are relieved to have a diagnosis for the often mysterious symptoms, especially if the child had an asymptomatic infection.
“Having seen other patients in our clinic, we are, first of all, able to offer some perspective about how the other children have been doing and provide hope that, even though these symptoms seem to be all consuming at present, there is hope that with time they will resolve,” Dr. Mohandas says.
Coronavirus infections vary widely. Some people have relatively mild symptoms similar to a cold, particularly if they have been vaccinated. For others, the infection is potentially life-threatening. More than 30,000 people have died from COVID in just L.A. County — about 1 million nationwide. But anyone, no matter the severity of their initial illness — even those who are young and healthy — can develop long COVID. Dr. Mohandas relays that the youngest long COVID patient she’s seen was just 9 months old.
“There is no no direct pharmacological treatment for long COVID. So the other important thing that we do in our clinic is suggest lifestyle modifications, especially given the severe degree of fatigue,” Dr. Mohandas says. “I think you have to understand these are long symptoms. For adults it's months and sometimes more than a year to resolve symptoms. Children tend to do better.”
Lucas ended up missing three months of school, finally returning in November, though he says the brain fog continued.
“It was extremely hard at first to even just read,” he says, “but every week it just got better and better. Now it's significantly improved.”
Still, it took six months before Lucas felt like his normal self. He is now part of a nationwide study to better understand the condition in children. His parents credit Lucas’s COVID vaccinations for saving his life.
“Studies have shown that vaccines decrease the chances of getting long COVID,” Dr. Mohandas says. “If there was a breakthrough infection, and someone did go on to have long COVID after the vaccine, the number of symptoms they have is nearly halved.”
In the coming months, she expects to see more children in her clinic with undiagnosed long COVID — as well as families hoping for answers.