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Kaine introduces bill to research and combat long covid, after suffering it himself

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), departs after a vote on Capitol Hill in December. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Sen. Tim Kaine got covid-19 in the spring of 2020, and nearly two years later he still has mild symptoms.

“I tell people it feels like all my nerves have had like five cups of coffee,” Kaine said Wednesday of his “24/7” tingling sensation, just after introducing legislation intended to expand understanding of long covid.

The Virginia Democrat is one of the thousands or even millions of Americans who could have long covid, the little-understood phenomenon in which symptoms linger for weeks or months after a coronavirus infection. There is no agreed-upon understanding of its root causes, or even its official name, making treatment of the long-term symptoms difficult — including for Kaine.

That’s why on Wednesday, Kaine joined Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) in introducing a bill to fund research into the long-term effects of the disease and expand treatment resources for people experiencing them.

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The bill tracks with the pandemic road map President Biden released Wednesday, which calls for funding research into long covid. Kaine — a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who has often asked federal health officials about long covid in hearings — said his office has been working on the legislation knowing the administration wants to prioritize the research.

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The Comprehensive Access to Resources and Education (CARE) for Long COVID Act would centralize data about the experiences of people who have long covid, fund research into the effectiveness of treatments, and expand educational and community resources so people experiencing lingering symptoms know how to get help.

As The Washington Post reported last week, long covid has baffled scientists, and the true scope of how many people it has affected is unknown. High estimates suggest over one-third or even roughly half of the 80 million Americans who have had the virus developed long-term symptoms, and low estimates put that figure in the single-digit percentage range.

Either way, that’s potentially hundreds of thousands or tens of millions of people with mysterious lingering symptoms. They can include neurological effects, brain fog, heart problems, respiratory problems — they run the gamut, medical researchers told The Post last week.

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“That’s going to put a burden on our health-care system,” Kaine said, “and it’s also going to require some research and some understanding, compassion, for people dealing with these symptoms — adjustments and accommodations in the workplace. There’s going to be a lot of consequences of this.”

Kaine developed flu-like symptoms in March 2020 in the earliest wave of the pandemic in the United States, when coronavirus tests were not even widely available, and then tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in May 2020. Most of his symptoms, “very mild,” went away within weeks. But the nerve tingling never stopped.

He went to see a neurologist and got an MRI, but the doctor told him everything looked fine. In a way, Kaine was relieved — but left baffled. “I know how my body felt before I got covid, I know how it felt when I got covid, and it’s not gone back to where it was before,” he said. “That gives me an understanding for people who talk about these long covid symptoms.”

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Many of the people he has talked to about their experiences have also had trouble finding a root cause of their lingering symptoms when they visit a doctor, Kaine said. Some are told not to worry, or that their symptoms could be from depression and anxiety, he said. But their symptoms can often be far more serious than what Kaine is experiencing, he said. “I can do everything I could do before. I don’t lose sleep over it. It’s not painful, it’s not debilitating. It’s just weird,” Kaine said. “For a lot of people it’s more than weird. It’s painful. It’s debilitating.”

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People who used to be avid runners now can barely walk around the block without getting tired, he said, ticking off examples. Some have mental fatigue, making it difficult to remember things, affecting their work. “A lot of people have these symptoms and they don’t know if they’ll ever go away,” Kaine said.

Numerous studies are underway to try to understand the phenomenon, and the bill from Kaine, Markey and Duckworth seeks to accelerate and centralize the research. The National Institutes of Health launched a research initiative studying the consequences of a coronavirus infection, which includes an examination of long covid.

“If we get the funding from Congress, we will launch new centers of excellence in communities across the country to provide high quality care to individuals experiencing long covid and to better understand the symptoms they’re facing,” Xavier Becerra, health and human services secretary, said Wednesday upon the release of the Biden administration’s pandemic road map.

Allyson Chiu contributed to this report.