SALT LAKE CITY — When Jennifer Hunter, a special education teacher, meets with her students’ parents, she often finds herself unable to remember certain words.

“I’m in the middle of a sentence and it’s a word I’ve used a hundred times before, and it just won’t come to me,” Hunter said.

It’s just one of the more frustrating effects she still faces — making her feel incompetent when she knows she really isn’t — six months after her coronavirus infection.

As Utah continues to confirm high numbers of new COVID-19 cases each day, researchers at University of Utah Health remain concerned about the long-term effects many like Hunter will face in the months to come and are ramping up efforts to help them.

The university on Tuesday announced a campaign to raise money to fund research on COVID-19 “long-haulers,” those who face symptoms for weeks and months after they contracted the virus.

Jennifer Hunter, a special education teacher in North Summit School District, works on schoolwork at her home in Ogden on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Hunter has experienced COVID-19 “long-hauler” symptoms after being infected with the virus five months ago. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In June, Hunter first got a headache. Then the fever began, and the difficulty breathing. By day seven, she found herself in the intensive care unit with pneumonia and pulmonary embolisms, which are blood clots in the lungs.

Months later, she still faces extreme fatigue every day even as she continues working. But she relates to the nearly 1,000 others in similar situations on the Utah COVID-19 Long-Hauler’s Facebook page.

Many of them, according to Hunter, are “just trying to find limits of what we can do without pushing ourselves too far and being out for a few days, and just shortness of breath, low oxygen saturation, especially after exerting myself.”

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Recovery remains elusive for many Utah COVID-19 long-haulers

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Utah health officials reported another 2,510 COVID-19 cases and 19 additional deaths. The rolling seven-day average for new cases is 2,292 per day, and the average positive test rate is 22.1%.

“We want to help the people who are already being infected, but this is something from COVID that’s going to outlast the vaccine,” said Nicole Frank, associate director of University of Utah Health Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease Initiative, also known as the 3i Initiative.

Although Hunter has an autoimmune disease, she says she was healthy before her COVID-19 diagnosis as she trained for a half marathon. She used to control her autoimmune condition with one pill a day. Now, she needs 20.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be back to what I was but I’m hoping I will be. I’m trying to stay optimistic with it,” Hunter said.

Experts estimate that between 10% and 25% of those who recover from active COVID-19 infections — including asymptomatic infections — could suffer lingering effects for months. Common complaints of long-haulers include heart and lung issues, decreased energy and exercise capacity, and psychological issues including brain fog. But answers, including how long the symptoms might last, remain elusive this early from a research perspective.

Long-term effects of coronavirus are also adding more to doctors’ plates. While hospitals are already dealing with an influx of current infections, they’re also seeing increasing numbers of patients with long-term symptoms. 

“I’m seeing in clinics very frequently, patients over and over, new patients — they’re having lung issues from chronic COVID,” Dr. Dixie Harris, pulmonary care physician with Intermountain Healthcare, recently told the Deseret News.

Frank noted that in Utah, when 4,000 cases are confirmed on a single day — as they were during a recent spike — that means up to 1,000 more people could suffer those long-term symptoms.

“We don’t have any glimmer of ideas as to how to best treat them and how to stop these symptoms from continuing to occur. And so it’s a really big question that affects a growing number of people,” Frank said.

Recently, the 3i Initiative received a $50,000 anonymous donation for work studying long-haulers. Although multiple studies have been taking place at the university, the work has moved at a “bit of a slower pace,” Frank said.

The initiative is seeking another $25,000 in donations to hire a clinical coordinator to speak to patients and collect samples.

“Having somebody that’s dedicated to that and hired in that position would make the research go faster,” Frank said.

Jennifer Hunter poses for a photo at her home in Ogden on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Hunter has experienced COVID-19 “long-hauler” symptoms after being infected with the virus five months ago. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Hunter described the research effort as “really exciting. I think it’s hopeful to us long haulers, but not only for us. I think it’s possibly going to be good for others who’ve had long-term, post-viral illnesses,” she said.

There are others, Hunter noted, who have dealt with conditions similar to those of COVID-19 long-haulers for years after other serious viral infections without answers.

Those interested in helping the researchers can donate at ustarter.utah.edu.

New cases, deaths

Tuesday’s cases were confirmed out of 9,146 people tested, with a 27.4% positive rate, according to the Utah Department of Health.

On Tuesday, 575 patients were hospitalized with the disease in Utah, which is 15 more than were hospitalized the previous day. Intensive care units across the state were 79.1% full overall, and ICUs that can treat the most serious patients were 85.7% full.

To date, 198,216 cases have been confirmed out of 1,432,225 people tested for the disease in Utah. Hospitalizations since the outbreak began total 8,279.

The deaths reported Tuesday — marking the second-highest number of new deaths confirmed in a day — bring the state’s toll to 890. The record in deaths occurred on Nov. 25, when 26 were reported.

  • Weber County woman, 45-64, not hospitalized.
  • Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Salt Lake County woman, 65-84, not hospitalized.
  • Utah County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • Utah County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • Weber County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • Washington County man, age 65-84, not hospitalized.
  • Utah County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Utah County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • Utah County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • Salt Lake County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • Utah County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Salt Lake County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • Cache County man, older than 85, not hospitalized.
  • Box Elder County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • Utah County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • Utah County man, 25-44, hospitalized.
  • Washington County man, older than 85, hospitalized.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly identified Jennifer Hunter as Jennifer Hansen.