Almost a year after being diagnosed with COVID-19, Becca Priddy still experiences symptoms daily.
Priddy, a teacher at Reynolds Middle School in Troutdale and an artist who has shown work at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, caught COVID-19 in November 2020. Now, she's one of 74,990 people in Oregon living with long COVID.
Along with a distorted sense of smell and taste, some of the biggest symptoms that Priddy still experiences each day are pain and fatigue.
"In my normal day of work as a teacher, I do a lot of walking, but at the end of the day, it's like every joint in my body feels like I've sprained it," said the Milwaukie resident, adding that she hopes to raise awareness about the long-term impacts of the coronavirus. "People might not know that people around them are suffering. Most likely, you know someone who has long COVID."
According to the World Health Organization, long COVID refers to symptoms that persist for at least two months after a confirmed COVID-19 infection and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis. In August, the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation estimated that around 11.1 million people in the United States are living with long COVID.
Shortly after beginning to experience symptoms in November, Priddy was tested for the virus. Though the first test came back negative, a second test was positive.
Her early symptoms included fatigue, a fever, congestion and racing heart palpitations.
"My Fitbit was saying that my heart was getting up to 165 beats per minute, just from standing up and going to take a shower. And I was like, 'That can't be right,'" she recalled. "But then I was getting these weird palpitations that felt funny. I got the Apple Watch because it has the EKG on it so I could see what was happening, and my heart was skipping beats."
In the early stages of her COVID diagnosis, Priddy was bedridden for around four weeks.
"It felt a lot like when you wake up from surgery and your body's just tired," she said.
Priddy lost her sense of taste and smell around a week after testing positive for the virus. When it returned about six weeks later, she noticed that many foods smelled and tasted rotten or similar to body odor.
"Nothing really tasted right," she said, noting that the foods she experiences this impairment with have changed over time. "It was this new smell. I'm in a few COVID support groups, and a lot of them call it the COVID smell."
Learning to live with the impact
Priddy noted that the pain and fatigue she continues to experience are similar to what someone with fibromyalgia might have.
"I'm in a lot of pain every day," she said. "At the end of the other day, people saw me limping down the hall (at school), and they said, 'Oh my gosh, what happened? What did you do?' and I haven't done anything."
The distorted sense of smell and taste has also continued. Among other misrepresentations, peppermint tastes like dirt, Lucky Charms cereal tastes like fried chicken, and onions and garlic smell rotten.
"A lot of people have the COVID smell for certain things, and there's a lot of common triggers. Beef, onions and garlic are the biggest ones. Tomatoes are too," she said. "For a long time, I couldn't eat any of that."
For some foods, like tomatoes, the distorted taste has gone away and then returned.
She added that she's had to retrain her nose to recognize many common smells.
"Imagine taking all the memories of every smell you've ever had and then just erasing them and starting fresh. That's basically what happened," she said. "There will still be times I smell something and can't recognize it."
Along with her physical symptoms, Priddy has also been impacted by other people's responses to the pandemic.
"The pain sucks, and the tastes and smells suck, but I think the hardest thing for me is seeing these people who don't think this is a big deal," she said. "I made a pretty strong statement this summer on social media that I don't want to continue being friends with people who aren't taking this seriously, don't want to get vaccinated or are against masks. It's really hard for me to go out into the world and see people who don't think that this is a big deal, because I'm in so much pain."
Priddy no longer does inside grocery stores because she's found that they are not consistently enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols.
"I went to the store over the summer and had a panic attack. I just couldn't understand how people can go about their lives as if nothing is going on. And I'm right here, and I'm limping through the store," she said.
The Reynolds School District returned to full in-person learning at the start of this school year. Priddy was concerned about returning to the classroom amid a pandemic.
"Being around 1,000 unvaccinated kids every day has made my anxiety really high," she said. "I'm not seeing the social distancing and the contact tracing that we were told was going to happen. And that's scary to me. I know that there are people that think there's no transmission in schools or COVID isn't really deadly. There's only a 1% chance that you'll die, but they're not looking at the 30 or 50% of people who end up with some sort of long COVID. I don't think people understand how debilitating this is."
Staying afloat with art
Along with her work at Reynolds Middle School, Priddy is an artist who's shown work at Burning Man in Black Rock City, Nevada, and SOAK, Oregon's official regional Burning Man gathering in Tygh Valley, along with the Portland Winter Light Festival. She also has a company called Business Catual, where she sews bowties for cats.
The feline-inspired business has been helpful in covering the costs of medical bills — particularly since she's had some difficulties with health insurance because long COVID wasn't always an official diagnosis recognized by insurance companies.
"When I have these unplanned bills I have to pay, I have this little side gig where any time I make a batch of bowties, if I throw them on Instagram, people flock to them," she said.
During the stressful times of the pandemic, she's enjoyed thinking about her work with Burning Man. Though SOAK has been canceled for the past several years because of COVID-19, when the festival is able to be held again, Priddy is creating one of its main pieces of art, called the major burnable structure.
She described her piece as a "massive puzzle" that resembles a Rubik's Cube. Rather than every side being one color, each one will be a mandala.
"The cubes are going to be scattered all over the event and people have to find them and figure out where they go on this big structure," she said.
Looking to the future
Priddy, who received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last January, encouraged everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
"Whatever happens from the vaccine is treatable. What I have is not treatable," she said. "They don't have any answers for me."
In the meantime, Priddy has appreciated connecting with others who have long COVID. She's a member of several Facebook groups focused on long COVID.
"It's been really refreshing to know you're not crazy," she said. "With the COVID smell, I'm like 'What is this awful smell?' and everyone's like, 'I know that smell.'"
Priddy and her fiance were going to get married last summer but pushed the ceremony out because of the pandemic. The two have been discussing the possibility of having children, but her long-term symptoms are now a factor in that conversation.
"Am I ever going to get well enough that I could be a parent? Because right now, I can barely make it through my workday. I don't know how I could come home and then take care of another kid," she said. "I think a lot of people are going through that, just from the stress and trauma of COVID and general. Working through a pandemic is really difficult, so I know I'm not alone."
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