During a Senate health committee hearing earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine made a surprising admission: Long after contracting COVID-19, the Virginia Democrat is still experiencing strange symptoms. Kaine revealed last May that he and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies following an onset of symptoms in March, and what the senator is now experiencing appears to place him squarely among the ranks of many people suffering from a condition now known as long COVID.
“I have these weird neurological symptoms a year later. They’re not debilitating, they’re not painful, but they’re weird,” Kaine, 63, said during the hearing, which included federal officials such as top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Long COVID can encompass a wide range of illness symptoms that occur weeks or months after an initial COVID-19 infection. Some reported by sufferers include fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal distress, numbness or tingling, and a rapid heart rate, among others. In February, the National Institutes of Health unveiled an initiative aimed at studying the causes of long COVID and treatments for the phenomenon.
U.S. News recently spoke with Kaine – a former vice presidential candidate and governor of Virginia – about his symptoms, why he chose to speak about them and what Congress is focused on for the post-pandemic future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photos: America’s Pandemic Toll
U.S. News: Good afternoon, Senator. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak on such a personal issue. You first got sick with COVID-19 last year. When did you notice that you had continuing symptoms and can you describe those symptoms?
Sen. Tim Kaine: It’s personal and it’s policy, and the reason that I decided to talk about my continuing symptoms was on the policy side.
I’m not suffering – I can come to work every day and then some – but I have symptoms a year later and I know a lot of people who do. And some people, you know, they’re not being believed or they feel like they’ll be stigmatized if they talk about them. But this is a real issue for our health care system to take into account – the variety of long-term symptoms that people are experiencing – so the health care system can deal with them. So that’s why I decided to start talking about it.
Basically, my story is: I almost certainly got COVID last March when we were doing the CARES Act. So my staff was home working virtually, but there was some community spread. At that time, (Sen.) Rand Paul was diagnosed with COVID, (Sen.) Amy Klobuchar’s husband was diagnosed with COVID, and some other Senate and House staffers were diagnosed.
In March, COVID was a respiratory problem. Those were the symptoms that everybody was focusing on. I didn’t have respiratory problems or fatigue, but I had a ton of allergic reactions: skin rashes, pink eye, this weird nerve tingling thing. And I thought, “Well, COVID is respiratory; this is something different.”
When we went home after passing the CARES Act, my wife had just textbook COVID symptoms at that point. We reached out to each of our physicians and they basically said, “You guys almost certainly have COVID, but we’re still so short of tests. We’re not even going to suggest you get tested. We’re just going to tell you quarantine at home,” which we were already doing.
By mid-April, both of us were feeling better. But I continued to have this nerve-tingling phenomenon that’s literally 24/7. It’s not painful. It’s not even that bad. I kind of laugh to say it, but it’s like every nerve in me is kind of sitting at the edge, waiting for something to happen, or has had five cups of coffee and caffeine has it just buzzing.
I had never experienced that before, but I got that right away with COVID and it hasn’t gone away. And then the other thing that’s happened is these rashes that would appear and then go away. That’s turned into no rashes anymore, but I call it a heating pad phenomenon. I feel like a part of my skin will heat up. But it’s nothing with my skin. I’m perceiving that’s what’s going on. Then 15 minutes, it will go away, and then later on in the day, it will be somewhere else on my body.
You hear about people who are experiencing tinnitus, people losing a sense of taste. The virus, for some, affects the respiratory system. For some, muscular. For some, fatigue and muscle aches. For some, it might affect your circulatory system. For some, it’s affecting neurological things. Some people have had brain fog or kind of confusion.
At the hearing, you asked federal officials about efforts to address long COVID. Dr. Fauci talked about the initiative NIH launched last month to study its causes and potential treatment. Was that a satisfying answer? Is there more you want to see done?
It was a satisfying answer, and actually I kind of knew that already. But what I really wanted was anybody watching this hearing who has long COVID symptoms to hear Dr. Fauci say: “This is not imaginary, this is real. We still don’t completely understand it, but with resources that Congress has provided, we are now doing very massive cohort studies of populations to try to get at the root of it.”
Now, in terms of satisfaction, obviously you do a cohort study like that so that you can determine what’s the mechanism at work. Are there treatments that can cause it to abate? Some good things came up last week, which is some people getting the vaccine are seeing these long symptoms abate. That hasn’t been the case for me. If that is the case with others, that’s very good. I want people who are really suffering from this and really debilitated to believe that we’re taking them seriously and then we’re going to try to find treatments for them.
Are you currently involved in any congressional efforts to tackle long COVID?
Not at the minute. I’ve now asked about the long COVID issue at two hearings, and I think I was the only person at either hearing. This is going to be a feature of the COVID hearings going forward: How are we doing on the long COVID cohort studies and what do you need, NIH, CDC or state health departments? What do you need from us in resources to deal with it? I think the resources that we provided in the legislation we’ve done thus far are not a pittance, but a serious effort to get to the bottom of it.
We’re going to have to figure out not just treatments but, for some people, (their symptoms) might never go away. Then there’s health care consequences to that. And we have to make sure we have a system that will appropriately recognize that. Efforts by some to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, well, OK, you have a preexisting condition now and you may not be able to get health insurance? There’s a lot of policy ramifications to this, and I’m going to keep the issue live before the committee so that we can make sure we’re adequately providing resources for those experiencing symptoms, but are not suffering. There are those who are suffering and I want to make sure we provide resources for them.
You’d also mentioned improving mental health during the pandemic. This is something not just people with long COVID have been struggling with, but also others who have lost loved ones or jobs. How do you plan to address that?
We’ve made some headway within the Dr. Lorna Breen Act, which is about targeted mental health resources for our front-line health care providers to kind of keep our healers healthy. Frankly, there’s still too much stigma within the profession. People feel like they can’t seek mental health services or it would affect their licensure.
The bigger mental health challenges of a year of isolation, of seeing death, seeing illness – we’re seeing more than anecdotal evidence of increases in emergency room visits due to substance use, which may have been caught had people been able to be in their normal treatment.
The way I posed the question to Dr. Fauci and others last week (at the hearing) is, “OK, there’ll be a day when the president will declare the public health emergency is over, but there’s going to be two consequences at least that will go on beyond it: long COVID consequences and mental health needs.”
We have to reset the level of what mental health needs are. We didn’t have enough mental health providers before the pandemic. We need to be digging into what the workforce needs, how services can effectively be provided. We’re doing more telehealth, and that’s enabling people to get access to services that they might have had otherwise. So we’ve learned some things about effective delivery of mental health services during the pandemic. But we just are going to have to set a different level of what the need is, and then find the workforce and services to meet that need.