The Long Haul: Early Insight into Long COVID

In early April 2020, a few weeks after San Francisco officials issued their first stay-at-home order of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cliff Morrison, MSM, MSN, showed up for work at one of the behavioral health facilities he administers. He had barely begun his day when he suddenly spiked a temperature of 101°F. He started packing his things to go home but quickly felt so exhausted he had to lie down in his office. His primary care doctor at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG) diagnosed him with COVID-19 that same afternoon.

When it came to pandemics, Morrison thought he’d seen the worst already. In the early 1980s, as a psychiatric nurse at ZSFG, he was on the wards as the first patients fell ill and died of what came to be known as HIV/AIDS. So much fear and uncertainty accompanied the disease that doctors treated AIDS patients largely in isolation, which upset Morrison. In 1983, he helped ZSFG open the first dedicated inpatient AIDS unit in the country, and it went on to become a global model for compassionate treatment of patients hospitalized with AIDS.

After his COVID-19 diagnosis, Morrison, who is 70, isolated at home with his two cats. He expected to return to work after two or three weeks. But a month later, he still had severe headaches, digestive troubles, extreme fatigue, and memory lapses. “Everybody kept saying to me, ‘This is a 14- to 19-day deal,’” Morrison remembers. “I was starting to wonder if I had lost my mind.”

That’s when Morrison’s doctor told him about a study that UC San Francisco researchers had launched at ZSFG to look into the long-term effects of COVID infection. Morrison, who knew many of the research staff from his days as an HIV nurse, called and signed himself up immediately. He wanted to contribute to science, certainly – but he also wanted answers about what exactly was happening to him. “It was extremely reassuring and made me feel so much better, that at least someone was interested in what was going on,” he says.

Though it wasn’t widely known at the time, Morrison wasn’t the only person still struggling with COVID long after most experts expected them to get better. Consensus had it that mild to moderate