Molly Phelps: Long COVID Took My Husband

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Millions of Americans are suffering through long COVID. Dr. Molly Phelps knows from experience that our health system isn’t able yet to provide the care they need.

Kevin and I have always had our best conversations on long walks through our leafy suburb. Now for the past seven months, on a rare very good day, my husband can manage the gentle slope of our block before I get the car to drive him home and help him back into bed.

When our family got Omicron this year, the kids and I recovered uneventfully. But my healthy, boosted husband did not. Multiple ER visits later, Kevin’s tests were surprisingly normal but he continued to decline. He went out on medical leave for what would later be diagnosed as long COVID.

Our healthcare system is woefully underprepared for the 24 million Americans living with long COVID. For now, there are fewer than 300 long COVID clinics in the country, roughly one for every 80,000 patients. Often affiliated with academic medical centers, these specialty clinics incorporate what little data is available into standardized protocols using off-label medications. Otherwise, our current system can only run tests to tell patients what other diagnoses they don’t have, and then wish them Godspeed.

The Bay Area has several of these clinics but accessing them feels like Sisyphus. We called three days past the cutoff for one clinic’s required lab test. Another center only saw patients who’d been in the ICU. The final one passed because Kevin had used a home COVID test last winter instead of a lab-based PCR swab.

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Countless phone calls and appeal letters later, we were thrilled when Kevin finally got approved… until we learned the first opening was in the middle of 2023. Four months later, we won the cancellation lotto and Kevin now takes a tiny fraction of a pill often used for addiction medicine.

When President Biden said the pandemic was over, I wished it could be true. But for the millions of Americans living with long COVID, there is still no end in sight.

With a Perspective, this is Molly Phelps.

Dr. Molly Phelps is a board-certified Emergency Physician. She is currently completing her memoir.