Northam (D) discussed his condition publicly last week as a way to encourage Virginians to get a coronavirus vaccine. The revelation underscored how personal this crisis has been for Northam — the nation’s only doctor-governor, he’s one of a small handful of state leaders to test positive for the disease and the only one to publicly report such lingering symptoms.
Loss of smell is a common byproduct of covid-19, but in most cases, the sense returns after a few weeks, said Richard L. Doty, a physician and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Center.
In a recent study at the center, Doty said, 96 of 100 covid-19 sufferers reported some degree of smell loss. After eight weeks, two-thirds of those were back to near-normal. Though the long-term outlook is uncertain because the novel coronavirus is so new, it appears that between 5 and 10 percent of people who completely lose their sense of smell from covid-19 could face permanent loss of the sense, Doty said.
Many viruses can cause smell loss, and the covid-19 mechanism is not completely understood. In the early stages of the disease, it seems to result from inflammation high in the nasal passages. But the virus also appears to affect cells that support olfactory receptors, causing long-term damage to the cells’ ability to regenerate, Doty said. There is controversy about whether the virus can infect the brain through those neural pathways, he said, but it appears unlikely.
Northam said he accepts his fate. Many Virginians have suffered far worse, he pointed out — more than 29,000 in the state have been hospitalized with the disease, some of them still struggle to breathe, and almost 11,000 have died of it.
The governor’s own experience with covid-19 was mild. He had a few cold-like symptoms, he said. First lady Pam Northam experienced slightly worse symptoms but recovered quickly. Her sense of smell is fine, her husband said.
As a pediatric neurologist, Northam said he is fascinated by the effects of the disease and has read up on the patients who report long-term effects — “what they call the long-haulers,” he said. “There are a lot of neurological symptoms. People describe brain fog, headaches, dizziness, problems with short-term memory. I haven’t had any of that. I try to exercise, stay positive, get my rest at night . . . I guess I’m fortunate.”
But his long-term effect is an intimate reminder of the pandemic’s toll on people’s lives. It’s also a cautionary tale, he said, about the need to get vaccinated. Northam got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine several weeks ago and reported only mild side effects from the dose.
“If you had a choice between getting covid and taking a chance with these side effects or even worse, and getting the vaccine, I’d take the vaccine any day,” he said.
Walking into a bakery, he said, Pam Northam will comment on the wonderful smell. But to him — nothing. He tests it every day, sniffing peanut butter, shampoo, soap, coffee; no aroma registers.
He has lost much of his sense of taste, as well. Northam avers that he’s not a foodie, so he doesn’t view this as a tremendous hardship. It has made sweets less appealing, which is good for health purposes but not for pleasure.
“I used to be a chocoholic, I guess you’d call it,” Northam said. No more. “So I’ve been able to stay fairly slim through all this.”
While his sense of taste is “kind of dull, if there’s something really spicy, I can kind of tell. Like barbecue potato chips,” he said.
Northam is also a car buff who loves to tinker with his antique Corvette and Oldsmobile. Not being able to smell whether there’s an exhaust leak or a gas leak interferes with his hobby and could pose a safety threat, he said.
There’s one small sign of hope. Northam said that once in a while he’ll detect a strange and deeply unpleasant odor that no one else can smell. Health experts say that can sometimes be a sign of the olfactory system repairing itself.
But otherwise, Northam said, he’s adjusting to what seems to be a long-term condition and trying to find the humor in it.
Sometimes he’ll be in the car with his two dogs, Pearl and Murphy, and the Executive Protection Service officers who accompany him everywhere will suddenly turn away and roll down the windows.
“They’ll say, ‘Pearl or Murphy, you seem to have a problem.’ And I can’t smell any of that,” Northam said.