Virginia governor reveals his long Covid symptoms as he urges vaccinations

More than a year after testing positive for Covid-19, Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, is warning about the importance of vaccines and the long-lasting effects of Covid.

After a mild case in September 2020 that felt like a sinus infection, Northam said in a video briefing that he was recovering quickly, and he waited for his sense of smell and taste to return. Instead, his symptoms gained force – when he drinks lemonade, it tastes like gasoline, and sometimes he smells smoke that isn’t there. Most of the time, though, he can’t smell or taste anything – including potential gas leaks when he restores vintage cars.

These conditions are called parosmia, phantosmia and anosmia, and they are among the leading symptoms of Covid-19 – studies suggest that about half of Covid patients lose their senses of smell and taste. Most patients recover within a year, but those who don’t – like Northam – may never recover.

Northam, a Democrat who is ineligible to run for re-election because the Virginia constitution prohibits incumbents from serving consecutive terms, is using the remaining three months of his term to renew calls for vaccination, with only 62% of Virginians fully vaccinated.

He is especially urging younger people who may not think they’re at risk for the virus. Even mild and asymptomatic cases can lead to long-term symptoms like these. About half of Covid patients still have lingering symptoms, known as long Covid, six months after infection.

“I’m 62, and I can deal with this,” Northam told the Virginian-Pilot. “But why take a chance, if you’re 15 or 20 years old or whatever age, of having symptoms that may affect you for the rest of your life?”

Northam is currently the only governor-doctor in the US, and as a neurologist he is able to explain exactly how the virus affects his olfactory system and the neurons linking it to the brain.

The damage occurs in the supporting cells, “which is kind of encouraging”, Northam said, “because most people think that, in time, they will actually regenerate and heal themselves, versus neurons that are a lot slower, and oftentimes don’t recover”.

Northam is undergoing olfactory therapy, where he takes big whiffs of familiar scents – his morning coffee, peppermint gum, peanut butter – to try to connect his nose back to his brain.

Vaccination can help prevent long Covid by preventing infection in the first place. Some patients also feel relief from long-term symptoms after becoming vaccinated.

“I’ve had the virus and the vaccine – between the two, I’d take the vaccine any day,” Northam said in May. He’s continuing to speak about his long Covid symptoms in an aggressive push for vaccinations.

Northam has announced vaccination-or-testing requirements for state workers in Virginia, and he also has urged business leaders to require Covid vaccines.

“I would hope that you would step up as well and say the only way we’re going to move forward, the only way we’re going to keep our businesses alive and well, the only way we’re going to get our children back to school safely is to get people vaccinated,” he told business leaders in September.

And it’s not just the risk of long-term effects from Covid. Vaccinations also help prevent severe illness and death.

“You are absolutely hurting other people,” he told unvaccinated Virginians in a September briefing. “This all was avoidable.

“Think about how you want your obituary to read, because you’re taking a foolish, dangerous chance and it affects many more people than just you.”

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