October 17, 2021
EZEIZA, ARGENTINA — When Marcela Cerdan caught COVID-19 in June 2020, she spent 11 days bedridden with body aches and fever. But the worst came after she got a clean bill of health.
“I had panic attacks, I didn’t want to leave the house, my heart palpitated,” Cerdan says. “I felt like I wasn’t getting enough air, but I measured myself with the oximeter and my oxygen levels were fine.”
Once a cheerful, confident woman, the 39-year-old found herself unable to resume cleaning houses in the gated communities on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Her husband’s factory wages stretched just enough to support their family of four, but her anxiety and depression mounted the longer she remained homebound, confused and idle.
When the pandemic struck last year, Argentina’s health care system adapted quickly and decisively, erecting 12 modular hospitals and increasing intensive care capacity by more than 40%. Through these efforts, the country has achieved a 98% survival rate, consistent with the global average and slightly higher than the South American average.
By design, this robust response has focused on emergency care, says Dr. Jorge Yabkowski, general secretary of the Trade Union Federation of Health Professionals of the Argentine Republic. As exhausted hospital workers prioritize saving lives, however, their “recovered” COVID-19 patients with mysteriously lingering symptoms are falling through the cracks – and searching for answers and empathy online.
On Facebook, dozens of Spanish-language groups have formed to share information and compare “long COVID” complaints ignored or dismissed by some physicians as psychosomatic or unrelated to the virus.
“A lot of people began to mention that they started having anxiety attacks after having COVID,” Cerdan says. “That’s when a lightbulb turned on for me.”
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
In a study of 3,762 long COVID patients across 56 countries, published in July by The Lancet, a medical journal, researchers projected that 92% of them would take at least eight months to fully recover from ongoing symptoms such as cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, fatigue, difficulty breathing, chest pain, changes in taste and smell, cough, nausea and migraines.
Nearly a quarter of Argentina’s COVID-19 patients report ongoing anxiety and two-thirds experience cognitive issues such as memory loss and decreased attention spans, according to the Observatory of Applied Social Psychology at the University of Buenos Aires. Dr. Martín Hojman, a member of the Argentine Society of Infectious Diseases, admits that the country’s medical establishment still has much to learn about long COVID.
“We still don’t know why it happens, how long it lasts, or if the symptoms are permanent or not,” he says.
He advises all recovered patients — even those who were asymptomatic — to book follow-up visits with doctors and pay closer attention to their mental and physical conditions.
But getting a 15-minute checkup can take weeks, says María Agustina Grace, a 31-year-old medical student who created the private “COVID PERSISTENTE ARGENTINA” Facebook group in April.
“Attention is reserved for the critical part of the illness and ends in 10 days,” she says. For a non-urgent condition, you have to make an appointment at least a month in advance – and the brief initial consultation doesn’t give doctors enough time to document and investigate all the symptoms that people with long COVID experience, she says.
Until last year, Grace energetically juggled medical school with a passion for writing short stories and novels. But nine months after contracting the coronavirus, she still lives with fevers, fatigue, “brain fog,” memory loss and a decreased attention span. Walking three blocks feels like a punishment – yet multiple doctors have told her that long COVID doesn’t exist.
“One follow-up doctor told me that it was impossible, that the persistent fever is not a documented symptom of COVID,” she says. “I had a ton of wrong diagnoses of other illnesses that, in the end, were ruled out.”
The same thing happened to Clelia Colombo, 32, a language professor who caught the virus in April and has suffered from severe dizziness, nausea and brain fog ever since. When she insisted on additional testing after doctors pronounced her fully recovered, she was assured that everything looked fine and the culprit must be post-traumatic stress.
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“Every person who still has symptoms afterward is on their own,” she says. “You can’t count on each individual person to have the strength to fight with a collapsed health system.”
In defense of Argentina’s health workers, Yabkowski says their exhaustion and trauma from months of battling a deadly pandemic – even more so if they became infected themselves – increases the likelihood of diagnostic errors.
He recommends a strategic plan and funding from the national Ministry of Health to create specialized teams focused on long COVID. The ministry, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, could also require hospitals to allow staff to take much-needed time off, he adds.
“The panorama is still obscured by the fire, but chronic COVID and post-COVID aftereffects are things we need to be paying a lot of attention to and dedicating resources to,” Yabkowski says.
Until then, Grace and Colombo say doctors should strive to believe patients and take the time to carefully document mental and physical complaints rather than dismissing them as stress-related.
For her part, Cerdan asks that Argentines be officially informed about the existence of long COVID. Although she ultimately found the encouragement she needed through social media, she wishes that a doctor or nurse had simply told her that some people experience anxiety, depression and other problems for months after recovering from the disease.
Just knowing that she wasn’t alone, she says, would have made all the difference.
“I wasn’t the only ‘crazy’ one,” she says. “I wouldn’t have fallen so far.”
Lucila Pellettieri is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.