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Sauk County deputy health director part of emerging group known as COVID-19 'long haulers'
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Sauk County deputy health director part of emerging group known as COVID-19 'long haulers'

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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the country and people fall ill, dying or being hospitalized, other concerns over its lasting effects have grown as there is more to learn how the novel coronavirus impacts people.

Sauk County Health Deputy Director Cathy Warwick spends her days talking about the virus as part of a government entity which has a primary duty to prevent mass illness through education and organization.

She also has a unique insight into the group dubbed the “long haulers,” people who may not have had to make a trip to the hospital or experience near death, but have been greatly affected by the virus.

Warwick fell ill with COVID-19 around mid-July, catching the virus after her husband, Tom, who works as a pharmacist, fell ill. The pair quarantined in the same house, but Warwick said they shared separate spaces. When she began to have allergy-like symptoms, she went to get tested to be safe, not thinking she could possibly be infected until she received the positive result.

As has been reported of COVID-19 sufferers, the couple had drastically different symptoms. While Warwick’s symptoms presented like a common cold, sneezing and a runny nose, she said Tom had a typical fever, breathing issues and a cough. He was winded walking from a couch to a nearby chair, she said.

“I’ve never seen him so sick,” Warwick said, acknowledging that she worried she would find him not breathing when she went to check on him during morning hours.

Though the illness passed, its effects have not.

Warwick is one of a growing group called “long haulers,” people who, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “cannot return to their normal lives” as “symptoms often come in waves, but never fully go away.”

“I think that what people don’t understand is that we don’t have enough information yet to know how many people will have lasting troubles from this virus, and have it not be acute, but have it be chronic,” Warwick said, noting that neither she nor Tom have any sort of underlying health concerns typically pointed to as a concern for a higher risk of death in COVID-19 patients, other than being in their early 60s.

While Warwick has been able to continue working, she said the virus which caused mild symptoms while she was infected has resulted in “brain fog,” fatigue, trouble sleeping, muscle aches and, most surprising, hair loss.

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“I’m hopeful that it’s going to get better, but I don’t know,” Warwick said. “I’m not to the point where it incapacitates me, I mean I can do my job, but I don’t feel whole yet.”

According to DHS officials, common symptoms among those dealing with COVID-19 symptoms months after no longer being infected, include extreme fatigue, confusion or difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath from regular activities, a persistent cough, headaches and joint pain.

According to the CDC, a national survey of survivors found that 20% of people between 18 and 34 years old without underlying conditions still hadn’t returned to their usual health up to three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19. Some people within that age group have had the symptoms for six months or more, according to the survey.

Former County Health Officer Tim Lawther mentioned during meetings on the novel coronavirus that the department has seen those effects even locally, which Warwick echoed. Lawther would frequently mention an avid runner in good health and possessing none of the concern factors regarding the possible death of someone who catches COVID-19 who had been sick months earlier but still could not climb a single flight of stairs without great fatigue.

Warwick said it is disheartening to experience these things personally and then see in her job an unwillingness by members of the public to adopt basic precautionary measures. The idea that COVID-19 is just like the flu downplays a contagious virus that the general public has no immunity against, Warwick said. CDC estimates show that influenza resulted in 22,000 deaths last season. COVID-19 has been the cause of death for nearly 240,000 people in the United States since the virus took hold in the country about nine months ago.

For those who believe COVID-19 is “just like the flu,” Warwick said it is difficult to convey the importance of isolation and quarantine, which drives up the number of infections. They don’t understand that someone who doesn’t have symptoms can make others deathly ill.

She said as the numbers go up and “the bulk of” people in Sauk County know someone who has had COVID-19, you can also see the demographics disproving the idea that only older people have serious health issues from the virus. Sauk County data shows that 40% of people who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 were under the age of 60.

As of Tuesday, there are 544 active cases in Sauk County, with 83 total people hospitalized during the pandemic and nine deaths in the county. There were three deaths in October and two so far this month, a trend that is troubling county health officials as cases surge.

People are understandably tired of the pandemic, Warwick said. The continual wearing of masks, following safe handwashing and other hygienic precautions, not being able to see people they care about; all of those things can contribute to people attempting to ignore a virus they can’t see until their body is fighting it, Warwick said.

Despite wanting to see her own children and elderly mother, Warwick said there are other ways people can stay connected with the use of technology because gathering together “is just not worth the risk.”

“I’m trying to remain hopeful that we’ll get through this and be able to have some semblance of a normal life, whatever that will be, but it’s not going to be soon,” Warwick said, adding that she hopes people stop being divisive about a virus that affects everyone. “Somehow we’ve gotten so split apart that basic caring for each other, where we usually rally together when there’s bad things that happen; I’m still waiting for that to happen. ...If we want to keep our schools open and keep our businesses open, everybody has to take a little chunk of personal responsibility.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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