10-year-old’s case shows what we know — and don’t know

Shyne Staples leaps up and executes a flawless forward roll across a gym mat. She flips into a cartwheel, stands on her hands, then climbs a rope before spinning around a high bar in her San Mateo gymnastics class.

Like many 10-year-old girls, Shyne likes flying around the gym, Simone Biles-style. But unlike most of them, Shyne begins class already in pain, and the exertion puts her to sleep 90 minutes after it’s over.

Shyne has long COVID.

Lingering, debilitating effects of the coronavirus were identified early in the pandemic, and new studies suggest that at least one in five adults has ongoing symptoms. But few studies have focused on children who, like Shyne, find their childhood disrupted by COVID months after recovering.

“There’s pain. And sometimes children have headaches. But fatigue is characteristically the most common” persistent symptom, said Dr. Roshni Mathew, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Stanford Children’s Health who doesn’t treat Shyne but sees other children with long COVID in her practice.

Shyne Staples, 10, exercises on a rope at Peninsula Gymnastics in San Mateo.

Nanette Asimov/The Chronicle

The World Health Organization defines long COVID as symptoms lasting at least two months after probable or confirmed coronavirus infection that “cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.” The National Institutes of Health is spending $1.15 billion to spur research into the phenomenon that can cause a wide range of symptoms, including brain fog, loss of smell, racing heart and chronic fatigue. In April, President Biden unveiled the National Research Action Plan on long COVID to accelerate the research effort.

Studies indicate that millions of people around the world are plagued by long COVID. Vaccination before infection appears to reduce but not eliminate the risk. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of adults under 65 who had tested positive for the coronavirus developed persistent symptoms, as did 25% of those over 65. A large national survey from 23andMe released in May roughly echoed the findings.

But how many children are affected by long COVID — and for how long — remains elusive. In the US alone, children represent 19% of all COVID cases — more than 13 million kids.

A pediatric study of long COVID published in February in the journal Lancet Child & Adolescent Health compared more than 3,000 British 11- to 17-year-olds who tested positive against a similar group that did not. Neither group reported feeling entirely healthy three months after testing. But researchers found that nearly 30% of the adolescents who had tested positive for the coronavirus experienced multiple symptoms, including fatigue, headaches and shortness of breath, compared to 19% for those who had not.

Shyne Staples, 10, takes a class at Peninsula Gymnastics in San Mateo.

Shyne Staples, 10, takes a class at Peninsula Gymnastics in San Mateo.

Nanette Asimov/The Chronicle

Long COVID Kids, a support group in the UK, features photos of 50 children from around the world on its website holding placards identifying their ongoing symptoms. The youngest is 5, and the oldest 16.

The sign held by one 12-year-old American girl lists memory loss, heart damage and passing out among her symptoms — all devastating for a person of any age. A UK 10-year-old peeks out from behind a lineup of 17 symptoms, including nausea and chest pain, under the heading “Day 293.”

Shyne is not on the page. But she could be.

She tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 9, a few days after her adult brother. Her fraternal twin sister, Samantha, stayed healthy, as did her parents. But after Shyne’s COVID infection faded, along with her sore throat and stuffy nose, other worse symptoms set in.

Deseree Solano of San Mateo is the mother of fraternal twins Samantha and Shyne Staples.  Shyne, 10, got COVID-19 in January and continues to experience symptoms.

Deseree Solano of San Mateo is the mother of fraternal twins Samantha and Shyne Staples. Shyne, 10, got COVID-19 in January and continues to experience symptoms.

Nanette Asimov/The Chronicle

“I started getting pain in my arms, my neck and my shoulders and legs,” she said, as she practiced back bends on the living room rug of the family’s home in San Mateo. “Before that, the pain was, like, here,” she said, pointing to a spot on her forehead just above her gold-rimmed glasses.

The first pains appeared on Jan 16. For a while, her mother, Deseree Solano, kept a symptom diary. Feb 16: “Neck and shoulder pain. Feels like she has bruises everywhere.” Feb 19: “Face started throbbing…very winded. Blank staring.” March 10: “Ear pain, armpit pain, legs. Shoulders, hair loss and now depression.” April 20: “Leg and back pain. Last week lips started bleeding again. Very tired. Still has hair loss.”

Shyne’s thick, brown hair continues to fall out. “We thought it was the shampoo,” said Samantha, her twin. “But it wasn’t, because my hair was fine.”

It’s all since COVID, Solano said. Before then, Shyne “would be the first person up and ready for school. Now I have to wake her up numerous times, and Samantha is up before her and ready. Shyne is not a kid to be lazy or get up late.”

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