Melanie Montano, 32, has been sick with COVID-19 for 40 days and she’s not sure when she’ll fully recover. She initially thought, as many people do, that she would be better from her mild case of coronavirus within a few weeks. Montano, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, said the widely accepted recovery estimate of two weeks has not been the case for her, and she isn't alone.
Montano's initial symptoms, a low-grade fever and cough, began March 15, just one day after her town announced a quarantine. Montano has asthma, which the CDC said could be a high-risk factor for the coronavirus. But she said when she initially called her doctor, he just read her the CDC guidelines and said she didn’t “sound sick.”
Eventually, Montano developed a loss of sense of taste and smell, body tingles, and the most worrying symptom, shortness of breath.
“It felt like a burning throughout my lungs. It hasn't really changed,” Montano told InsideEdition.com. “I think I’ve just gotten used to it at this point.”
Montano, who teaches at a university, was finally able to get a test and her results came back positive March 28, she said. In the meantime, she’d had to go to the ER because she couldn’t breathe and her inhaler wasn’t working for her.
“It felt like I was being held under water,” Montano said of her breathing. She said she was released from the hospital, being told to come back if she couldn’t breathe again.
Now, it’s been more than a month and Montano worries when her sickness will end. She now has a nebulizer to help, but she said her ability to breathe “ebbs and flows.” She’s frustrated that the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that most mild cases of the infection clear in two weeks. WHO says that more serious cases, where people who have been hospitalized, can take three to six weeks.
“I think it’s extremely reckless. It’s called the novel coronavirus for a reason,” Montano said. “It’s new, which means we don’t know much about it.”
The doctor initially recommended Montano isolate for 10 to 14 days after her positive test, but because she still has symptoms, she has mostly stayed in her house for the past month. She doesn’t know if she’s still contagious.
In places like New York, once a person has been tested, they're unable to be tested again due to a test shortage. So, for many, it’s frustrating not knowing if their body has truly shed the virus, especially when they're still symptomatic.
Montano said she goes for rides in her car to get outside without putting anyone at risk. Because she is a single woman who lives alone, she said she has no choice but to go on essential trips, with her mask and gloves on, to places like the grocery store.
“I suffer from clinical depression and anxiety and when you’re all alone in your room and apartment, it takes a toll on you,” Montano said. “It’s terrifying to not know ‘if I go to sleep, am I going to wake up?’ It’s emotionally taxing.”
And Montano isn’t the only one feeling the burden of being sick much longer than anticipated.
Aaron Young, a 26-year-old aerospace engineer who lives in California, said he noticed his first symptoms — fever, chills and a headache — on March 17, but wasn’t able to get to the doctor until April 4. He was tested for the virus but tested negative, and he said his doctors told him it may have been too late to get a positive at that point.
Antibody tests have also not become readily available in the United States yet. Young said he’s still feeling ill, suffering from “burning lungs, chest and back pain, cough, the occasional headache and a sore throat."
"This has taken an immense toll on me mentally," he said. "I'm worried about dying, worried that my body is permanently fatigued, worried that there is permanent damage to my lungs. I've always been a very active person. My favorite hobbies were hiking, exercising, dancing and traveling. Now I'm worried I can't do any of those anymore. It's hard for me to work at my job, which expects me to return to work 100%, having blazed through my paid time off."
Dr. F. Brobson Lutz, an infectious disease specialist and the former health director of New Orleans, said he’s not surprised that it’s taking people longer to recover.
“I’ve had several patients who have tested positive and are still positive more than three weeks after their initial positive test. Most of them have some continued cough or fatigue,” Lutz said. “I see this after any lower respiratory tract infection. After influenza, someone can have a cough for two weeks to two months, depending on the underlying causes. People think they need more specific treatment when they really need tincture of time. For some, the cells regenerate quicker than others.”
Danny Haro, a 21-year-old from Newark, New Jersey, said he also began experiencing symptoms in mid-March, but didn’t get tested until April 4 at a drive-thru center at Weequahic Park.
“I already knew about the coronavirus and knew it was going around and that we were a hot spot in my city," Haro said. "I had a lot of chest pain, which I know I didn’t normally have. I was having shortness of breath and lost my sense of taste and smell."
Haro said he thought he would recover in two weeks because that’s what he’s been "seeing on the news," but that hasn’t been the case. He is still feeling shortness of breath.
“I still have times where I have to sit down and catch my breath and the chest pain once in a while,” Haro said.
Lutz said the healing process with coronavirus is like recovery from a fire.
“The initial infection is like a forest fire; it burns through your bronchial tubes and lungs,” he told InsideEdition.com. “The fire is no longer there, but it takes a while for the green growth to come. You basically have a raw scar in your lung until the normal respiratory cells regenerate. The forest doesn’t turn green the next day and it takes time for the trees to reappear.”
It’s not just the lungs that will take time to heal, Lutz said, but the entire body, as coronavirus is a systemic viral infection and affects every cell.
“It’s a systemic infection with fatigue, with loss of sense of smell and taste, probably some cardiac abnormalities for some,” Lutz added.
He even noted that for some, an illness like this could cause depression.
“You have people with post-influenza depression and people commit suicide,” Lutz said. “This is well recognized in influenza literature. I don’t think COVID-19 has been around long enough to know whether this post-infectious depression is going to develop, but it’s common in a lot of infections.”
In what could be a silver lining, Lutz added that even if people are still having symptoms after quite some time, it doesn’t mean that they are still contagious.
“The continued presence of a cough is in no way indicative that the person is still infectious with other infections, and I can infer it’s the same with COVID,” Lutz said. “The body is going through it’s healing and it’s going to take time.”
But for some, even knowing their body is healing doesn't make the experience any less scary.
“I know my heart is OK,” said Haro. “I know the lungs are trying to fix themselves. It’s just the fear of the unknown.”