September 2, 2021

In the year since I’ve contracted COVID-19, I’ve wrangled with the inherent conflict between the deadline-driven, fast-paced nature of a career that usually kept me in constant motion, and dealt with the ongoing effects of an illness that has wreaked havoc on my cognitive function, requires frequent rest, and impairs the very senses I need to fully experience, and convey, the world around me to my readers and viewers.

Nearly 18 months after I first woke in the middle of the night, short of breath, with pounding palpitations and searing pain in my lungs, I’m not much closer to understanding the full scope of long COVID, which will affect nearly one in three people who contract COVID-19.

Even among those with mild cases — which mine arguably was — recurring and fluctuating symptoms run the spectrum from persistent fatigue and breathlessness, headache, chest heaviness, muscle aches and palpitations. The long-term effects are largely still unknown but are wide-ranging and include severe cognitive issues and even organ damage.

For journalists suffering long COVID while also reporting on the pandemic, the experience can be overwhelming.

Morgan Stephens, who works as a production assistant at CNN and a freelance journalist, has been dealing with long COVID for nearly a year. She detailed her experience in a frank essay, “Eight months of long covid brought me to the brink.” When we connected about our shared experience of dealing with long COVID as journalists, she spoke of the challenges of juggling work and long COVID’s effects.

“As a journalist, we have tight deadlines but our syndrome is the antithesis of that. It’s all about pacing,” Stephens told me. “And so these two things are conflicting with each other. The key is just to go to a threshold and see how much further you can go.”

Stephens attempted to go back to work full-time after her initial bout of COVID and discovered fairly quickly that the schedule was too ambitious, as she still copes with chronic migraines, fatigue and shortness of breath, among other symptoms. Now working part time, she credits her team at CNN for their flexibility.

“My team has been incredibly understanding, but I know that I’m very lucky,” she said. “A lot of long haulers that I speak to, most haven’t returned to work because they don’t have the accommodations that they think they need, or they have returned to work and it’s a situation where they conveyed that their colleagues know how sick they’ve been but they don’t fully understand it.”

Self-employed journalists that I’ve spoken to have described the brain fog associated with long COVID as completely disrupting the necessary, nearly obsessive organizational skills required to manage the pipeline of a freelance business, from staying on top of research, pitching, invoicing, submissions, and more.

I’m never sure whether to disclose to a source during an interview that I still haven’t regained full hearing in my left ear, and might need them to repeat something; that I might lose my breath during a normal conversation, or that I need to consult my notes more frequently than I would have in the past, as the ability to retain information at my pre-pandemic levels simply hasn’t returned.

I’m struggling with the idea that it might never.

While the worst of the brain fog has passed — there were months where I could barely write a complete sentence or have a simple polite exchange with a stranger without getting completely disoriented — I am slowly accepting the idea that my brain is simply different now, and am trying to get to know it the way one has to reacquaint themselves with their body after an injury. I know I’m not alone in this. A widely-publicized paper presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2021 found that long COVID brain fog shares similarities to Alzheimer’s.

“In addition to the respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms that accompany COVID-19,” the paper said, “many people with the virus experience short- and/or long-term neuropsychiatric symptoms, including loss of smell and taste, and cognitive and attention deficits, known as ‘brain fog.’”

In patients experiencing long COVID, the study found “biological markers similar to those of significant brain injury, neuroinflammation and Alzheimer’s that correlated strongly with the presence of neurological symptoms,” and that patients experiencing cognitive decline post-infection “were more likely to have poor overall health.”

“These new data point to disturbing trends showing COVID-19 infections leading to lasting cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s symptoms,” said Heather M. Snyder, Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific relations.

These things have forced me to change the way I report, from doing more research and taking more notes, to sketching out detailed interview questions in advance, to just allowing more time to get to and from the interview, and more time to write.

Elana Newman, Dart Center’s research director, said that whether we’re struggling with long COVID or not, journalists everywhere are all adapting to a new style of reporting. There are things we’re simply not able to do currently that we were able to do before, and setting those limitations and boundaries is key to maintaining mental health and social support systems while we cope.

“A couple things about COVID have been very challenging for journalists in general. It’s harder to interview people in person, it’s harder to get to documents that aren’t online, there have been changes in reporting tools. All of this has created new challenges,” Newman told me.

“The other challenge we have failed to address is just the lack of boundaries,” she said. “Journalists work really hard, they work long hours to begin with, under less than ideal circumstances, but now to work from home, particularly when you’re covering traumatic events, life-threatening events, events in your community, is incredibly difficult. Trying to get a semblance of boundaries is very important.”

What those boundaries look like will be as varied from journalist to journalist as the way COVID impacted us. But because the pandemic has left no journalist unscathed, these conversations about limitations, and boundaries, and capacity, are more important than ever. Once relegated to the purview of conflict and foreign correspondents, the topic of mental health and safety among journalists of all beats is now commonplace.

“I think the one positive from the pandemic is that, with how much stress journalists are under, I see stigma changing. I see this as a very important sea change,” Newman said. “I think that the one positive piece is that all avenues for self care and mental health awareness are open now. Over time, this will empower and sustain good journalism.”

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Molly McCluskey is an award-winning freelance foreign correspondent and investigative journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Rolling Stone,…
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