A 33-year-old nurse got long COVID despite being fully vaccinated. Doctors think we may see more of these rare cases.

·4 min read
A nurse in the streets of New York City.
A tired nurse leaving Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital in New York City on April 23, 2020. B.A. Van Sise/NurPhoto/Getty Images
  • Anna Kern, a 33-year-old nurse, got long COVID several months after being fully vaccinated.

  • Doctors are starting to recognize that these cases are possible, even if they're extremely rare.

  • Kern said she's struggling to return to work while dealing with extreme fatigue.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Anna Kern got her second vaccine dose five months ago, but it wasn't a ticket to normality. Kern, a 33-year-old nurse practitioner, tested positive for COVID-19 in April and has been struggling with long COVID ever since.

The post-viral illness is characterized by symptoms that last a minimum of three weeks but can often drag on for months. Kern said her symptoms had gotten steadily worse. At first, she had chills and felt rundown, so she cut back her work hours - Kern had been doing COVID-19 tests in the Detroit area. Then she started experiencing extreme fatigue after minor activities like a walk or a jog.

Related video: What coronavirus stress is doing to your brain and body

In May, Kern recorded her heart rate while going about her morning routine - eating breakfast, brushing her teeth, washing the dishes. She was at 130 beats a minute, a rate she'd normally hit only through exercise. Symptoms like racing heart and fatigue are commonly reported among people with long COVID, who are also known as long-haulers.

By Memorial Day, Kern could barely move after working a shift.

"I remember waking up and knowing that I needed to drink some water and maybe eat some food, but being so tired that I was trying to figure out if I could actually do that," she said. "I ended up crawling from my bed to my refrigerator."

She considered asking for more time off, even though she was working remotely. But at about the same time, she learned that her nursing position - her main source of income - had been cut.

Anna Kern
Anna Kern in her scrubs. Anna Kern

With her life upended, Kern turned to a long-haul support group. She found a few people who'd also gotten breakthrough infections - cases of COVID-19 diagnosed at least two weeks after someone is fully vaccinated - and still hadn't recovered. But not many.

For now, there's no good data to assess how common long-haul cases are after vaccination, but the chances of getting any breakthrough infection are rare. A May report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that just one in 10,000 vaccinated Americans got sick after their shots. And UK researchers estimated last year that long-haul cases could occur in about 10% of people found to have had COVID-19.

So getting long COVID after being fully vaccinated is "a low probability times a low probability," Bob Wachter, the chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, told Insider.

Still, he said: "I'm at the stage now where I'm quite confident it can happen. I really doubt it's going to turn out to be one in a million."

'You feel lots of guilt - like, what did I do wrong?'

Kern's job put her at high risk of a coronavirus infection before her vaccine, so she donned full protective equipment during her shifts.

Anna Kern in a nursing home.
Kern at a nursing home in Detroit. Anna Kern

"Before I went into my apartment, I would like take off my clothes and put my scrubs in a bag and take bleach water and rubbing alcohol and wipe down everything that I was bringing inside," Kern said. "I wasn't even taking a coat in April of last year, even though it was kind of chilly, because I didn't want to have to deal with it afterwards."

Then she got her first Pfizer-BioNTech shot in December.

"It felt like relief flooding through my body - like, OK, I've survived," Kern said.

But four months later, an unvaccinated coworker got sick. The woman wasn't diligent about wearing her mask, Kern said.

Less than a week later, Kern started feeling fatigued. She thinks the vaccine helped prevent a more severe outcome, but she still wonders whether she slipped up somehow.

"You feel lots of guilt - like, what did I do wrong? How could I have been more cautious?" she said.

Of course, no coronavirus vaccine is 100% effective - and even the shots from Moderna and Pfizer appear to be slightly less effective in the face of new variants.

"The chances of a breakthrough infection are real," Wachter said.

He added that even people who got relatively mild cases postvaccination could feel crummy for months - "and maybe for years, we just don't know."

Kern said she's having a hard time trusting that it's safe to return to normal activities. She worries she won't be feeling up for work anytime soon.

"I have been pretty much working nonstop since COVID started," she said. "This wouldn't have been the way that I would have elected to take some time for me to breathe, but it is the way that it's happening."

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