In December of 2020 Mike Penuliar, research director at the F. Marie Hall Institute, was infected with COVID-19. His exposure to the virus, pre- and post-vaccine, is laid out below.
In December, most people are preparing for the holidays. But for me, something else occurred during that month in 2020. I had to battle COVID-19 during a time when most people were getting ready for a joyous time with their family and loved ones.
During the holiday vacation time that I so looked forward to, I remember one night feeling incredibly tired. I had significant muscle pain, one of the weirdest headaches I have ever felt, and a minor sore throat and cough. The headache felt like intense pressure all over my head. I also experienced some confusion and disorientation regarding my immediate surroundings. With all of these things overwhelming my senses, I went to bed.
The sun started to rise. The sleep was poor and the strange headache still lingered, but additional worrisome things arose. There were the oddest sensory perceptions in my mouth and nose. My mouth had a metallic taste as if I took a giant bite into the metal part of an old hammer, and it just stayed there lingering on my tongue or the back of my throat. My tongue also felt a little weird and almost numb. That metallic taste was immediately followed by the taste of dirt or sand. After some time pondering on what was going on, I decided to get out of bed and make breakfast. Maybe I just needed a meal.
Breakfast is probably my most favorite meal of the day. I finished cooking, and I was eager to dive into my plate of eggs, sausage, and hash browns. I took my first bite, and to dismay, there was nothing, not even that metallic taste. Instead of the wonderful feeling one has as they eat one of their favorite meals, all that I could taste was literal air. I tried another bite and the same thing, the only sensory perception I could ascertain was the texture. The warmth of recently cooked food was even reduced to what I wasn’t typically used to in a hot meal. I became frustrated and pushed my plate away. I decided to try a few other things in the kitchen: coffee, vinegar, mustard, ketchup, deli meat, chips. All liquids tasted like water and all solid foods tasted like air. Later that day I was tested, and just as I suspected, positive for COVID-19. When arriving back home, if I wasn’t eating, the metallic taste often returned.
The COVID-19 virus is different from other viruses in that it’s one of the few viruses that cross the blood-brain barrier, not dissimilar to some of the effects of viral meningitis. COVID-19 may first invade the body through the nasal and oral cavity, but shortly after that, the virus likely crosses through the cribriform plate in the nasal cavity and eventually crosses the blood-brain barrier (Achar et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2021). It’s this pathway that most likely leads to the sensory perception issues.
Feeling faint, I decided to measure my temperature a few times. Each reading read approximately 101 degrees. As the days wore on the fever remained steady and the sensory distortion continued, but then the coughing and breathing issues started. My oximeter readings fluctuated between low 90% to high 80%. Generally, anything less than 95% is something to be concerned about.
Fortunately, the doctor I saw gave me enough medicine to help alleviate some of the pain and symptoms. Then it was rest, or rather as much as one can acquire as they take care of their toddler. Moving about the house was a painful chore as it felt like there were giant clamps on most of my muscles. My body felt as if it was dragged down by weights on every section of my body. Because of all that, I opted to stay in one spot as best as I could. The pain was less severe if I didn’t move a muscle. Unfortunately, even when motionless, my head still throbbed from a pain that was both worse and different than any migraine that I have ever felt. I often told my wife, it was as if there was something in my head that I couldn’t get out.
A week after the onset of my symptoms, I developed a rather painful condition called lingual papillitis and a swollen tongue. Lingual papillitis refers to the painful inflammation of the taste buds, a lesser-known symptom of those who suffer from COVID-19 per Gonzalez et al. (2020). In their study, 11.5% of their study population had this condition. Regarding other conditions, 6.6% had tongue swelling, and 5.3% had a burning sensation in the mouth. Each attempt to eat or drink was met with a painful stabbing sensation. Needless to say, this made it difficult to muster up any desire to eat my tasteless “air” food.
Away from meals, when I would just lie down waiting for the pain to go away, the metallic taste I mentioned earlier would sometimes return and overwhelm my sense of taste. The taste perception distortion without any stimulus is called phantogeusia. It is one of the taste perception symptoms that affect some COVID-19 sufferers.
Regarding the metallic taste, one case study by Katz & Guelmann (2021) detailed a pediatric patient with this condition during their fight against COVID-19. Another study by Samaranayake et al. (2020) described dysgeusia, an impairment or disorder in taste, as more prevalent in males than females. A very intriguing study by Burges et al. (2021) investigated the online responses of a 9000+ member Facebook group called AbScent COVID-19 Smell and Taste Loss. Many members describe burning sensations in their mouth, metallic taste, and many other scent and taste distortions. And some people have a far more unfortunate situation than others. Like @hannahbaked, a TikTok user who recently described her long COVID-19 experience where food has tasted like sewage for the past ten months and every meal is a nightmare.
My severe COVID-19 symptoms lasted a long eight weeks. The fever went away first. The breathing and coughing got better eventually, but only by the second month and onward did my recovery seem to accelerate. My perceptions of taste and smell fluctuated for a few more months until they eventually returned to normal. My energy took a long time to recover as well. I felt significant fatigue for much of Spring 2021 going into Summer 2021.
Unfortunately, my immune system seemed to have taken a hit from the virus as well which is documented in some of the research (Yazdanpanah, 2020). Every few weeks for the next half year, I would come down with severe cold/flu symptoms with similar 100-101 degree fevers. In short, per some medical professionals, I was suffering from what the researchers call ‘Long Covid.’ The nurse I spoke to said, “I’ve seen this a few times, and it’s just something you are going to have to deal with for a while. We don’t have the knowledge or resources to deal with Long Covid. I hope it goes away for you soon.”
Eventually, things got better, and all my symptoms alleviated. By late Spring 2021, I was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. I did not want to deal with all I went through again. Then Fall of 2021 started to approach. Cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant started to climb dramatically, rivaling the speed of the Winter 2020 COVID-19 surge.
When October 2021 came around, I became sick and tested positive for COVID-19 again. Reinfection can emerge if a variant is substantially different than the previous strain one was infected by or the original immunity wanes from an infection, which is suspected to last about a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021) stated that those fully vaccinated have a low risk of reinfection for at least six months. Another study stated that immunity lasts five to seven months post-COVID-19 infection (Ripperger et al. 2020).
Vaccines are not a panacea, and this particular vaccine did precisely what it was designed to do; lessen the severity of the symptoms if I were to catch COVID-19 again. The cough, aches, sore throat, altered sensory perception were all relatively mild this second time around. In addition, the vaccine also reduced the viral load as the immune system is more prepared to defend itself against a specific invader. This reduced viral load accelerates viral clearance within the human body (Singanayagam, 2021), and not only does this aid in decreasing symptoms, but also viral spread within the community.
There are some in the anti-vaccine, political, and media communities that say vaccines do not work, especially as booster shots have become widely available (Blake, 2021; Rattner, 2021). But I refute, as they do exactly what they are supposed to do by stopping the severity of symptoms if you were to catch the disease, thus substantially reducing local hospital load, spread, deaths, and overall suffering.
I self-isolated for approximately two weeks. With some rest, medicine, and time, the symptoms faded. For me, instead of months of symptoms, prolonged pain and time spent in the hospital, the symptoms this time around only lasted a week, and then life continued on.
- Achar, A., & Ghosh, C. (2020). COVID-19-Associated neurological disorders: the potential route of CNS invasion and blood-brain barrier relevance. Cells, 9(11), 2360.
- Blake, A. (2021). The most pernicious anti-vaccine talking point. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/11/22/most-pernicious-anti-vaccine-talking-point/
- Burges Watson, D. L., Campbell, M., Hopkins, C., Smith, B., Kelly, C., & Deary, V. (2021). Altered smell and taste: Anosmia, parosmia and the impact of long COVID-19. PLoS One, 16(9), e0256998.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Science Brief: SARS-CoV-2 Infection-induced and Vaccine-induced Immunity Retrieved from cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/vaccine-induced-immunity.html
- Katz, J., & Guelmann, M. (2021). Increased Prevalence of Dysgeusia in Pediatric Patients Diagnosed with COVID-19. Pediatric Dentistry, 43(4), 282-284.
- Ripperger, T. J., Uhrlaub, J. L., Watanabe, M., Wong, R., Castaneda, Y., Pizzato, H. A., … & Bhattacharya, D. (2020). Orthogonal SARS-CoV-2 serological assays enable surveillance of low-prevalence communities and reveal durable humoral immunity. Immunity, 53(5), 925-933.
- Rattner, N. (2021). Unvaccinated Americans falsely say the need for booster shots proves Covid vaccines don’t work, Kaiser survey shows. CNBC. Retrieved from cnbc.com/2021/09/28/unvaccinated-americans-say-the-need-for-boosters-proves-covid-vaccines-dont-work.html
- Samaranayake, L. P., Fakhruddin, K. S., Mohammad, O. E., Panduwawala, C., Bandara, N., & Ngo, H. C. (2020). Attributes of dysgeusia and anosmia of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) in hospitalized patients. Oral Diseases.
- Singanayagam, A., Hakki, S., Dunning, J., Madon, K. J., Crone, M. A., Koycheva, A., … & Lackenby, A. (2021). Community transmission and viral load kinetics of the SARS-CoV-2 delta (B. 1.617. 2) variant in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in the UK: a prospective, longitudinal, cohort study. The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
- Vrieze, J. D. (2020). More people are getting COVID-19 twice, suggesting immunity wanes quickly in some. Science, 10.
- Yazdanpanah, F., Hamblin, M. R., & Rezaei, N. (2020). The immune system and COVID-19: Friend or foe? Life Sciences, 256, 117900.
- Zhang, L., Zhou, L., Bao, L., Liu, J., Zhu, H., Lv, Q., … & Qin, C. (2021). SARS-CoV-2 crosses the blood–brain barrier accompanied with basement membrane disruption without tight junctions alteration. Signal transduction and targeted therapy, 6(1), 1-12.