Is there a cure for Long Covid?

I thought I had dodged Covid, and maybe I did.

I did have to work with students in person, but we maintained social distancing, masks and other protocols. Other than that, I almost never went out. I wore masks any time I left my house. I checked my temperature daily, sometimes more. I got myself tested in late November: negative.

Nevertheless, around the beginning of February I started feeling easily fatigued when I’d exert myself. A lot of that was shoveling snow — an incredible physical effort to start with — but by late in the month I was feeling short of breath even under normal circumstances. At the same time, my resting heart rate rose more than 20 beats per minute between the beginning of January and today, and though I’m sleeping fine, the heart rate stays high enough that, by the time I awake in the morning, I’m famished, having burned the same amount of calories while I rested as I used to do on very long walks.

It could be something else. I have other health conditions, some of which lend themselves to the same kind of symptoms Covid does. And if I did have Covid, I was completely asymptomatic — no loss of smell or taste, no fever, no days in bed. I’m currently in the midst of some tests to see what the physiological underpinnings are … or the psychological underpinnings, since I also suffer from anxiety.

Still, when I posted my symptoms to some friends, more than one wondered if I could have Long Covid, the condition usually brought on by an initial infection which then, stubbornly, refuses to go away. Much to my surprise, they could be right: it’s possible to get Long Covid even if your main case was completely asymptomatic.

This is one hell of a troubling disease.

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Sunday read: Sing a song of Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett. Photo via the Palm Springs Desert Sun/Gannett.

Tony Bennett struggles to remember.

Faces can prompt blank looks. Words don’t come easily. Events from his past — a career that’s included Number One hits, success across the decades, praise from Frank Sinatra — have apparently vanished in the recesses of his mind.

Tony Bennett has Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed in 2016, when he was 90. He’s 94 now, and though he still has many moments of clarity, the isolation of Covid hasn’t helped his condition.

But do not weep for Tony Bennett. He is actually an example of what staying active can do to keep the disease in the background. He even performed right up until last March, when Covid brought the curtain down on live performance, and his pianist, Lee Musiker, comes to Bennett’s apartment twice a week to rehearse. (Musiker succeeded Ralph Sharon, who worked with Bennett for five decades.)

Bennett is the subject of an extensive profile by John Colapinto, “Tony Bennett’s Battle with Alzheimer’s,” in the current AARP The Magazine. It’s my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: This pretty much sums it up

Image from the Washington Post.

The 88 pages of the Jan. 4-Jan.11 issue of The New Yorker contain one feature article, a 39-page chronicle of how Covid-19 went from obscure coronavirus to the colossus of death that has killed 2 million human beings as of mid-January, including close to 400,000 Americans.

It’s my Sunday read.

I know, I know. You’ve had enough of reading about Covid. I’ve certainly had enough of posting about it. But — and this means no disrespect to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong or the diligent folks at Stat — this piece was written by Lawrence Wright, a terrific writer who wrote the best book on the lead-up to 9/11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” and an excellent work on the Camp David accords, “Thirteen Days in September.” (In an eerie coincidence, “The End of October,” his novel published in May but written earlier, concerns a worldwide pandemic.)

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Sunday read: A scientist hero

Image from Cosmos Magazine.

I grew up in the 1970s, which means that my bloodstream and organs are probably full of contaminants that will take decades, if not centuries, to break down — long after they may have contributed to my death. I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of plastic, inhaled plenty of tar and nicotine, and probably consumed some radioactive heavy metals.

I’ve certainly been exposed to greater-than-healthy doses of lead (which is to say, more than zero), because until 1975, it was in pretty much every gallon of gasoline we pumped in America. That means it was also in every ounce of exhaust that our internal combustion engines produced.

But at least we’ve moved in the right direction — away from leaded gasoline. And, in part, we have Clair Patterson to thank.

Patterson, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of,” is the subject of my Sunday read.

Patterson, who was trained as a chemist but practiced geology and physics, was an eccentric. His discovery that his laboratory was infested with lead prompted him to go to extreme lengths to clean it (as well as hypothesize where the lead came from), at a time before “clean rooms” existed. And that wasn’t all.

On smoggy Pasadena days, he’d amble across the quad wearing two different colored socks and a gas mask. He went distance running when distance running was a hobby for weirdos. He didn’t look or act like a professor. He wore t-shirts, khakis, and desert boots. He refused tenure. Later in his career, he soundproofed his Caltech office and installed two doors, two layers of walls, and two ceilings. As his colleague Thomas Church noted, Patterson was like his rock samples: He did not enjoy being “contaminated” by outside influences.

This made him easy to caricature for the corporate interests — oil and auto companies — that wanted to keep their leaded fuel in the pipeline. After all, it eliminated knocking!

And no-knock leaded gasoline was a small price to pay for all that lead in the environment. After all, miniscule amounts of lead couldn’t cause that much damage. Could it? The leading lead researcher certainly didn’t think so, and nobody was looking over his shoulder.

Kehoe also made mistakes that might have been caught had his work been subject to independent scrutiny. In one study, Kehoe measured the blood of factory workers who regularly handled tetraethyl lead and those who did not. Blood-lead levels were high in both groups. Rather than conclude that both groups were poisoned by the lead in the factory’s air, Kehoe concluded that lead was a natural part of the bloodstream, like iron. This mistake would grow into an unshakeable industry talking point.

That probably sounds familiar.

Mental Floss’ Lucas Reilly shows how indefatigable Patterson was. The scientist went to Greenland to take samples, then Antarctica. He took days to test each one. What they showed was undeniable: lead contamination had risen sharply in just a few decades. And then he went to a mountain in Yosemite and made his conclusions even stronger.

Oh, we’d polluted with lead before — just ask the ancient Romans — but this was of a scale that was frightening, not to mention unnecessary. After all, we weren’t making utensils, just stopping our cars from making noise.

You should read it all. Sometimes, even against entrenched corporate interests, science (and safety) will out.

Read “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of” here.

Ed Sullivan eyes

Ed Sullivan (detail).

According to my birth certificate and my mother — who’s fond of reminding me that she was there — I was born around 4:30 in the morning.

That’s the last time I’ve even halfway desired to emerge so early. And, back then, I doubt I had much of a choice.

More than 55 years later, my eyes show the passage of time and an unwillingness to awaken before the dawn. My wife is envious of my ability to sleep — if I lack an excuse to get up on a weekend, I’ll sleep in until the cats insist I get up — which makes it all the harder when the alarm is set for, say, 5:30 a.m. My father never struggled with such a relatively early hour; he was up, showered, shaved, caffeined, and gone before the sun showed its little yellow face. Me, anything before 6 a.m. may as well be the middle of the night.

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What I miss

Image of a Troxler effect from BigThink.com.

This year has felt like several years crammed into one, and almost none of them have been good.

Was it really only eight months ago that life was “normal,” in that — the White House Reality Show notwithstanding — it seemed like a continuation of most of what we’ve experienced during previous decades, and not some remnant of the Middle Ages during a plague outbreak?

Eventually — I keep telling myself — we will return to some degree of the Before. I do hope (with many, many doubts given the behavior of too many people and governments) that we have learned something: about the importance of teachers, hospital personnel, and the invisible working class who keep our societies functional; about the necessity of personal contact; about how easily things can fall apart.

But O, how I miss so many things.

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A tip of the cap to Major League Baseball

Image from AP via Spectrum News 1.

I had my doubts.

When Major League Baseball announced its 60-game regular season, I thought it was a mistake. It was one thing for the NBA to enclose itself in a bubble to keep Covid-19 at bay; MLB, with its larger roster and teams traveling all over the country, seemed doomed to fall to the disease.

And in the early going, it appeared that I — and many other naysayers — were going to be right. In the first few weeks of the season, several series were postponed due to the virus, and several players were afflicted. A few, including the Braves’ Nick Markakis, said they would sit the season out. (He came back, but not without a scare.)

But now, with the championship series in the books and only the World Series left to play, the sport has marked more than 47 days — that’s close to seven weeks, taking us back to August — without a positive Covid test.

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Review: ‘The Body’ by Bill Bryson

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a famous line by the screenwriter William Goldman about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

Goldman’s statement seems even more apropos to Bill Bryson’s most recent book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants.”

Over and over again, despite talking with leading experts and immersing himself in who knows how many books, Bryson has to revert to uncertainty. “We are not quite sure how solid that advice is,” he writes about the proper amount of fat in a diet. “Today [asthma] is common and still not understood,” he says about the respiratory ailment. “Meaningful definition [of pain] is impossible,” he offers.

And, of course, “The field of sex studies has a long history of providing dubious statistics,” Bryson says after reeling off some of the more improbable (“Men think of sex every seven seconds,” “The average amount of time kissing in a lifetime is 20,160 minutes [336 hours].”) That may express a lack of trust about sex, but at least a lack of trust about sex isn’t surprising. Just think of all the jokes about penis size: “What are the three sizes of condom? Small, medium and liar.”

None of this is bad, or even off-putting. But it is surprising, especially from a guy who wrote “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” a book about astronomy and cosmology that, for me at least, provided some real answers — or, at least, pretty well-supported theories — about earth and space. Heck, “Nearly Everything” even got into quantum physics, practically the definition of “uncertainty.” (Just ask Erwin Schrodinger.)

Now, I love Bill Bryson. I particularly love “Nearly Everything,” because it has a wide-eyed curiosity about a subject that, by its nature, invites awe — a nice combination. But for “The Body,” you get the feeling that the author, who’s probably more famous for his books about language (“The Mother Tongue”) and traveling (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “In a Sunburned Country”), decided to turn inward to biology and anatomy and was met with more confusion and frustration than he got from quantum physicists.

Still, “The Body” makes for a typically entertaining read, with Bryson’s love of knowledge and tidbits forever breaking through the “We’re not sure” shrugs.

For example, did you know that Theodor Escherich, who examined our excrement and found a number of microorganisms, including the one now known as E. (for Escherichia) coli, called it Bacteria coli commune? Or that apes don’t have an Achilles tendon? Or that Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian medical instructor, helped eliminate what was called childbed fever simply by recommending doctors wash their hands before doing examinations? Semmelweis, who sounds at least as important as Joseph Lister, was a prophet without honor in his lifetime, losing his job, being committed to an asylum, and beaten to death by his guards. And that was just a little more than 150 years ago.

Medicine has come a long way since then — even if we human beings remain notoriously unpredictable on an individual level. “The Body” came out at the end of last year, so there is no mention of Covid-19, but the reaction of our bodies to that disease is another one for the books, literally: some people asymptomatic, others violently ill, too many dead. It would likely have been a whole chapter in a later edition, but it’s provided no reason to laugh — and laughter is one reason “The Body” makes for a good read.

I wouldn’t say the book is among Bryson’s best. There’s just too much aggravation on the part of the author, who must have wondered what he got into. (It was probably more fun to write about black holes or weird Australian insects.) Moreover, some of the material has already been ably chronicled by Mary Roach, whom Bryson — to his credit — acknowledges when appropriate.

But Bryson is always a welcome guide, so if you’re looking for a breezy tour that takes you from head to toe, “The Body” is a winner. And if you’re still unsure? You know what they say: Ask your doctor.

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P.T.S.-COVID

Image from Il Sorpasso.

I keep thinking about this essay:

Research on prisoners, hermits, soldiers, astronauts, polar explorers and others who have spent extended periods in isolation indicates social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use. People separated from society — by circumstance or by choice — report feeling more socially anxious, impulsive, awkward and intolerant when they return to normal life.

Psychologists and neuroscientists say something similar is happening to all of us now, thanks to the pandemic. We are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not. The signs are everywhere: people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting to or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.

I know I feel it. Like many of you, I have spent the last six months in near isolation. My wife was with me at home for most of that time — thank God — but even when she was here, we stayed tight in our little bubble, leaving the house only for grocery shopping and the occasional errand. When I could strike up a conversation with a (masked) stranger in a supermarket line, it felt like a victory.

Contrast that to a normal day, pre-Covid, something I took for granted as “life.” Even aside from going to work — where there were colleagues to talk and joke with — places seemed active. I may have been alone, but I could join in the flow. People ate in groups, kibbitzed in lines, mixed with other human beings without fear of accidentally picking up a dread disease — a disease, it doesn’t have to be said, that automatically isolates you, whether at home or in a hospital.

Worse, it’s a disease that forces you to die separated from loved ones. It’s a disease that goes against everything we need to be — strive to be — as people. It destroys community in the purest sense of the word.

I tell myself that most of what we consider normal goes on. This isn’t Europe in 1942.

Still: I feel anxious. Solitude is different from solitary.

Even the most introverted among us … are wired to crave company. It’s an evolutionary imperative because there’s historically been safety in numbers. Loners had a tough time slaying woolly mammoths and fending off enemy attacks.

So when we are cut off from others, our brains interpret it as a mortal threat. Feeling lonely or isolated is as much a biological signal as hunger or thirst. And just like not eating when you’re starved or not drinking when you’re dehydrated, failing to interact with others when you are lonely leads to negative cognitive, emotional and physiological effects.

I know this ugly era will end (or at least be somewhat controlled by a vaccine, much as many diseases are), but man, this is a long damned tunnel. (And though Europeans and Canadians have also had trying times, what we’re going through in the United States has an added layer of fear and frustration that should have been unnecessary.)

All I know is, if you want to reach out, feel free to drop me a line. Trust me: I’ll welcome the connection.

A lesson from New Zealand

Image of Jacinda Ardern from Getty via time.com.

Recently, after more than three months without a Covid-19 case, New Zealand got hit with a new outbreak two weeks ago. It’s a sobering reminder that Covid remains a challenge to control — New Zealand is still trying to figure out how the disease managed to re-emerge given the country’s precautions — and even after a vaccine is approved, nations and municipalities will have to remain on alert.

Nonetheless, the country of 5 million has done an excellent job of keeping Covid in check. Aside from its status as an island nation, giving it some built-in defenses, it clamped own hard with quarantines and testing. Even now, after the new outbreak, the country has tallied 1,665 total cases and just 22 deaths, a fraction of the rate suffered by others.

Still, there always has to be someone sneering “nyaah, nyaah, nyaah” in the back of the classroom. Could it be the classless man who has presided over 5.6 million cases and almost 170,000 deaths — almost one-quarter of the world’s fatalities?

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