How wife's long COVID bout crystallized Bay Area doc's biggest pandemic fear

In this photo illustration, free iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid tests from the federal government sit on a U.S. Postal Service envelope after being delivered on February 04, 2022 in San Anselmo, California.
In this photo illustration, free iHealth COVID-19 antigen rapid tests from the federal government sit on a U.S. Postal Service envelope after being delivered on February 04, 2022 in San Anselmo, California. Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – A Bay Area doctor has confronted his biggest fear at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few weeks, as his wife contends with a bout of long COVID.

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Dr. Bob Wachter, Chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine, said Wednesday that, five weeks after her third coronavirus infection, his wife Katie Hafner is "nowhere near 100%" while experiencing "pretty terrible fatigue," headaches and “a brain that isn’t quite working as well as well as normal.”

Wachter, who has documented his wife’s experiences on Twitter, said he has been thinking about the risks of contracting long COVID ever since coronavirus vaccines became widely available to American adults last year.

"I've been saying and thinking for over a year that my main fear of getting COVID is long COVID," Wachter told KCBS Radio's Jason Brooks and Melissa Culross on Wednesday morning. "Because omicron is a little bit milder and because the vaccines work so well, I really no longer factor in the possibility I might die of it. I'm a healthy, 64-year-old person, so my risk is very low, and that's obviously very different from two years ago when that was the main concern.”

“But seeing it up close and personal makes clear that it can really be quite disabling and get in the way of your life," he added.

Wacther said his wife experienced a "rebound" case of COVID-19 after taking Paxlovid, Pfizer’s antiviral coronavirus pill, which he would still recommend to people who are "at high risk of a bad outcome" following infection. But, he admitted he was wondering if the medication contributed to his wife’s ongoing symptoms.

Long COVID’s symptoms have largely remained the same even as variants have emerged more than two years into the pandemic, with Wachter noting that people have a lower chance of losing their sense of smell and taste for long periods than they do experiencing fatigue, headaches, body aches and palpitations.

Wachter’s wife did all she could to mitigate her risk of contracting long COVID, but he said the case rates in the Bay Area and elsewhere – which are likely underreported due to the preponderance of at-home testing – raise the possibilities of infection.

"She had two vaccines and two boosters, which helps in part because it lowers your chance of getting COVID, although obviously not to zero, and in studies lowers the probability of long COVID by somewhere between 15% and 50%,” Wachter explained. "But there's so much COVID around, that still leaves a fair number of people who will get long COVID."

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