RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For some people, surviving COVID-19 is just half the battle. Doctors report some patients are experiencing crippling side effects months after contracting the virus. They’re called COVID long-haulers and Richmond resident Rita Johnson is one of them.

Johnson contracted COVID in July 2020 and eight months later, she is still haunted by symptoms she can’t shake. Her hair started to fall out.

“I could just go and grab my hair and it would be in my hands,” she said.

Johnson’s hair loss after brushing. (Photo contributed by Rita Johnson)

She says she’s also fatigued. “Walking up the steps, you know I never was winded before,” said Johnson. “Now, sometimes I am just tired.”

Johnson spent 10 days in the hospital on oxygen fighting COVID-19. Prior to that, the 52 year old was a relatively healthy and active mom.

Yet in a recent visit with a cardiologist her echocardiogram revealed a slight abnormality and the doctor heard something. “He heard a murmur and I had never had that diagnosis before,” she said.

Johnson is also battling brain fog. “There are times when I forget mid-sentence,” she said.

For more from Johnson, watch below:

“Surviving COVID does not mean recovering from COVID,” explained Diana Berrent.

Berrent founded Survivor Corps, a grassroots effort to support and educate those impacted by coronavirus. She was one of the first in her area to test positive for COVID-19. A year later, she too has long lingering symptoms.

“I ended up in the hospital two weeks ago with a mysterious abscess that the doctors had never seen before,” she said.

Dr. Wes Shepherd, director of interventional pulmonology at VCU Health has been working with patients to better understand what’s now known as Long COVID. “The symptoms are incredibly diverse,” he said.

Dr. Shepherd said symptoms can range from cardiac problems to neurological issues to pulmonary problems. For some reason, young women seem to be more impacted. The doctor says often the side effects are showing up in people who were never in the intensive care unit.

“Many of these patients were not even hospitalized,” said Dr. Shepherd.

Limited studies so far suggest 10% to 30% of former COVID patients experience reoccurring symptoms. Considering the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. now, Dr. Shepherd said that could be as many as 8 or 9 million Americans.

“Some people are already describing this as the next big health crisis,” said Dr. Shepherd.

He says a long COVID clinic and research is in the works at VCU.

“At this point we really don’t understand the risk factors,” he explained.

In the meantime, Johnson now takes vitamin C and Zinc, and she carries a pulse oximeter to monitor her oxygen levels. She hopes those who thought this virus was a hoax, take note.

“I just wanted to people to be able to put a face with the story and know that this really is real,” she said.

Dr. Shepherd says taking vitamin C and Zinc is safe but there’s no proven cure for COVID-19. At this time, he tells us there’s no special treatments for long COVID.

The The National Institutes of Health (NIH) just launched a four-year, $1 billion study to better understand why breathing problems, brain fog and other symptoms continue to for some COVID survivors.

NIH announced the study in February and plans to study how to prevent and treat these prolonged symptoms. A release from the NIH director explains that the variety of long-term side effects is referred to as Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection or PASC.

The NIH received $1.15 billion in funding from congress to research the health consequences of COVID-19. Research opportunities began opening up on Feb. 23.