Virginia governor reveals his long Covid symptoms as he urges vaccinations

Ralph Northam had a mild case in September 2020 that left him with long-lasting effects, including loss of smell and taste

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.”


Melody Schreiber

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Supreme court overturns bribery conviction for former Virginia governor
Bob McDonnell found guilty in 2014 of taking gifts and loans from a businessman but court says jury was not properly informed of what constituted bribery

David Smith in Washington

27, Jun, 2016 @5:12 PM

Article image
Virginia: second woman accuses lieutenant governor of sexual assault
Justin Fairfax denies the allegation and says ‘a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me’

Ben Jacobs in Washington

08, Feb, 2019 @11:06 PM

Article image
Virginia governor election to offer sketch of America's post-Trump landscape
The state has not elected a Republican for statewide office since 2009 but Democrat Ralph Northam has made heavy weather against Ed Gillespie

Ben Jacobs in Norfolk, Virginia

07, Nov, 2017 @1:40 PM

Article image
Virginia lieutenant governor faces calls to resign amid sexual assault claims
Backlash mounts against Justin Fairfax as crisis among state’s Democratic leadership continues to deepen

Jessica Glenza in New York and the Associated Press

09, Feb, 2019 @7:34 PM

Article image
Ralph Northam will 'put Virginia first' and resign as governor, Democrat says
Terry McAuliffe says ‘Ralph will put Virginia first and will do so soon’ but Virginia lieutenant governor Fairfax, who is black, does not call for resignation

Martin Pengelly in New York

03, Feb, 2019 @6:42 PM

Article image
Virginia governor denies he is in racist yearbook picture – and will not quit
Ralph Northam asks for ‘opportunity to earn forgiveness’ but also recalls darkening skin for Michael Jackson costume

Amanda Holpuch in New York

02, Feb, 2019 @8:42 PM

Article image
‘Don’t sit this one out’: Obama stumps for Virginia governor candidate Terry McAuliffe
Former president warns against complacency in ‘blue’ state amid race seen as indicator of Democrats’ congressional hopes

Josephine Walker and Safia Abdulahi in Richmond, Virginia

23, Oct, 2021 @11:41 PM

Article image
Virginia: woman who accused lieutenant governor of sexual assault speaks out – as it happened
After attorney general admits wearing blackface in 1980s, lieutenant governor accused of attack in 2004

Vivian Ho in Oakland (now) and Ben Jacobs in Washington and Erin Durkin (earlier) in New York

07, Feb, 2019 @1:00 AM

Article image
Virginia governorship: Democrat Ralph Northam wins 'bellwether' race
Republican party faces first major electoral defeat of Trump presidency in election that Democrats presented as a referendum on the White House

Ben Jacobs in Richmond, Virginia

08, Nov, 2017 @7:33 AM

Article image
Campus concerns: the election issues unsettling students in Virginia
In the second of a series of election year discussions, African American students discuss job anxiety, concerns over police and the pressure of student debt

Megan Carpentier

06, Jul, 2016 @11:00 AM