Nov. 22, 2022 — South African singer-songwriter Lungi Naidoo remembers shuddering in fear the first time her heart skipped a beat. She hoped it was just anxious energy stemming from her recent engagement and a newly released hit single.
Then her heart skipped another beat, and then another. The 42-year-old told her fiancé that she thought she was having a heart attack. “It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “I was afraid I might just drop dead on the spot.”
Naidoo’s first symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as long COVIDcame about a month after she had recovered from a severe bout of COVID-19 in April 2020. Since then, the performer has been in and out of the hospital because of an irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, fatigue, and extreme anxiety.
Naidoo is one of a number of musicians and other entertainers who have been severely debilitated as a result of long COVID. A month ago, Dave Navarro said he won’t be touring with the rock band Jane’s Addiction due to the illness. Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest, a Seattle-based rock band, said on Twitter that he can’t perform because he “lacks a basic level of functionality” due to post COVID symptoms. Other artists have been less specific about their health but have hinted that lingering health problems after COVID-19 are at least partially to blame.
As we move into what health experts are warning may be a severe cold and flu season, possibly marked by a surge in COVID cases, the general public is still sorely unaware of how common long COVID is and how severe its symptoms can be, says David Putrino, PhD, director of rehabilitation innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.
“Long COVID is still under-recognized by the general public, and it’s really helpful for musicians or others with a prominent following to speak about their experiences with the condition because these are the types of stories that really connect with people. They see someone they can relate to dealing with it,” says Jason Maley, MD, director of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Critical Illness and COVID-19 Survivorship Program.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 5 people who are diagnosed with acute COVID-19 will get long COVID. Research also shows that if you have long COVID, each reinfection of COVID-19 is likely to cause a flare-up with symptoms growing increasingly severe each time.
Bad for Business
To make matters worse, doctors still aren’t widely diagnosing long COVID in their patients even though the CDC and the World Health Organization have both made recommendations for how to diagnose the condition, says Mount Sinai’s Putrino. “The medical profession in general has difficulty making diagnoses based on clinical presentation instead of lab tests, and there is currently no lab test for long COVID,” he says.
Putrino, who has a number of musicians and athletes as patients, says that revealing a long COVID diagnosis can be harmful for business for many performers, which explains their reluctance to go public with their health condition.
“From the artist’s perspective,” he says, “it’s a condition that can’t be treated, which can have a very negative impact on their next contract.”
For many artists, it’s the elephant in the room they don’t want to talk about in an industry that depends on people being around one another. “If you’re in a stadium with a thousand people not wearing a mask, COVID isn’t just a risk, it’s likely,” says Putrino.
The pandemic has had a crushing impact on the industry. Danny Zelisko, the former chairman of Live Nation Southwest and now owner of Danny Zelisko Presents, says that without help from the federal government, he would have gone belly up last year.
He hopes the virus is on the wane, but being cautious is still wise. “It’s still rampant and people are getting sick,” Zelisko says.
After 2 years of cancellations and rescheduling, Lucas Sacks, director of booking for Brooklyn Bowl Williamsburg & Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia, says younger crowds are back in droves, though older audiences are comparatively more hesitant. Older event-goers “are willing to spend more money to be in VIP sections or anywhere away from the crowd,” says Sacks.
It’s not clear whether they’re scared of acute COVID-19 or long COVID, but either way, the pandemic looms large. Sacks welcomes the precautions because after being on furlough last year, he just wants to stay open with performers who are healthy.
A long COVID diagnosis can have devastating consequences to a performers’ physical and mental health. Broadway conductor Joel Fram, 55, had from a severe case of COVID-19 in March 2020. About a month after recovering from the virus, he started to have symptoms of long COVID. “I remember I was sitting at the kitchen table when all of the sudden, I got this severe fatigue that caused me to pass out,” he says.
It took nearly a year of intense rehabilitation for Fram to finally get back to his role on Broadway. When the musical Community reopened in October 2021, he was back conducting the orchestra.
Still, Fram says that the general public is largely unaware of the impact of long COVID. Most people are maskless at Broadway performances and the actors and actresses perform for different audiences at every show. This is also true of large-scale concert venues. A few groups like They Might Be Giants, an alternative rock band, announced that concert goers should all wear high-quality masks, but in most cases, people are back in stadiums without regard for the risk.
Grace McComsey, MD, who leads the Long COVID RECOVER study at University Hospitals Health System in Cleveland, says poor public health messaging about masking and other preventive measures has helped to lead to the large number of long COVID cases. “The general public needs to understand that while they’re unlikely to die of acute COVID, the real risk comes from long COVID,” she says.
A Stubborn Illness
Nashville singer-songwriter Terry Bell, 70, has had long COVID for almost a year. “It’s damaged my singing voice and caused me to lose 50 pounds,” he says. It also seems to affect patients young and old. Even 24-year-old performing violist Ravi Veriah Jacques has been bedridden with long COVID for over a year. “I think I will recover, but I have to be realistic that this could take a very long time,” he says.
The only wholly effective method of protecting yourself from long COVID is not to get acute COVID-19. “Though research has shown that vaccinations do provide some protection against the condition,” says Maley at Beth Israel Deaconess.
The damage it’s done to many in the music industry should provide an overall warning to those who haven’t been taking the virus seriously in the past year. Musicians like Lungi Naidoo have seen their love of the stage evaporate. She’s performed a few times since being diagnosed with long COVID but says she’s still afraid that her voice and energy won’t ever be the same. “You put your whole heart into a performance and long COVID takes that away from you,” she says.