Last November, Jarred Arfa felt his heart racing.
He checked his pulse oximeter, and his resting rate was in the 160s. That’s disturbingly high for a 36-year-old. “Pretty scary,” he says.
The top executive for the agency representing Billy Joel, Rod Stewart and Metallica called an ambulance, and on the way to the hospital, he took a calcium channel blocker for high blood pressure. Mercifully, the symptoms subsided by the time he arrived. “I’d sort of calmed myself down,” he recalls. “I get in these arrhythmia states, when you have 20 minutes of your heart rate racing at an abnormal speed.”
This kind of panic-calm cycle has been Arfa’s life for the past 10 months. The fast-talking New Yorker who is general manager of Artist Group International, the agency his father, Dennis Arfa, founded in 1986, is what doctors call a “long-hauler” — one of those mysterious COVID-19 patients whose symptoms never quite seem to subside. The virus has infected more than 24 million people in the U.S.; medical researchers say 30% of patients continue to have significant symptoms three weeks after their positive tests, and 10% have them after three to six months.
“We’re seeing quite a bit of this,” says Jessica Dine, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “A ton of patients have survived their COVID infection, and their original symptoms have improved, but not completely resolved.”
Unlike most long-haulers, Arfa has an advantage as a patient: As a power player in the entertainment industry, he has what he calls “means,” the ability to make connections with key doctors and afford the care. Because he once directed Muhammad Ali Enterprises, he contacted the late boxing legend’s wife, Lonnie, who referred him to the doctor who treated Ali for Parkinson’s Disease. Michael Okun then passed Arfa to the University of Florida College of Medicine’s Chris Robinson, a COVID-19 expert who started seeing him last April.
“We thought his autonomic nervous system was being severely affected,” Robinson says, referring to the part of the body that regulates blood pressure, breathing rate, digestive glands and other crucial processes. “He had never had anything in his life before. A relatively healthy guy.”
Via phone, Zoom and in-person appointments, Arfa has visited more than 50 doctors overall, including nine cardiologists, seven neurologists, six gastroenterologists, two ENTs, two psychologists, two functional medicine doctors, two infectious-disease specialists, two nutritionists, two massage therapists, a pulmonologist, a general doctor, an endocrinologist, a hematologist, a pain and rehab doctor, a sleep doctor, a therapist and an occupational therapist. He awakens every morning, hoping to be better, then realizes he has pain or discomfort in yet another part of his body: “It’s like you get up and you have a fortune wheel: ‘What doesn’t work today?'” says his father, Dennis.
Arfa’s story began March 25, when he developed a dry cough, then flu-like symptoms. “Everything was starting to peak, here in Manhattan,” he says, in a series of phone and Zoom interviews, “and I just had this gut feeling.” By this point, as he told Billboard, the agency shut down its offices, so Arfa’s job was primarily to transition remote employees to the company’s server. Then he felt sick, and for the first week, thinking it was basically the flu, he worked through it.
By the second week, he had a fast heart rate and high blood pressure. He began isolating from his wife — who developed her own, more minor symptoms a few days later and was forced to take care of their 3-year-old son while sick. (Her symptoms vanished within four days.) He moved into his parents’ apartment in New York, after they’d decided to leave the city and quarantine in Florida. When he couldn’t get out of bed, he called Robinson. “He would walk to the bathroom and his heart rate would be 170,” the doctor recalls.
Doctors hadn’t fully researched COVID complications in those frantic early days, but Arfa’s body responded to coronavirus in what proved to be a typical way — his immune system attacked the infected cells, then viewed the entire body as a target. He was able to get a test and, within two days, learned he was positive. Alone for that first week in his parents’ apartment, Arfa tried not to panic, telling himself: “OK, you’re younger, what the statistics are telling you is you’ll most likely survive.” He adds, “So I wasn’t as scared about that. I was kind of like, ‘Hey, make it through this and you’re good.'”
By the second week, following “everybody’s mantra” in New York to avoid overtaxing hospitals and ambulances, he hired nurses to help during the day.
The first, intense illness lasted about three and a half weeks. Towards the end, he was able to watch a little television. “But I was so out of it, I would sit there, zoned out,” he says.
Feeling a bit better after a month, Arfa returned home to his family. On April 5, he tested negative. He tried to do a little exercise, but experienced “shortness of breath I had never felt.” He returned to the doctor for a chest CAT scan and received another disturbing diagnosis — one probably present from the beginning: double pneumonia. The prescription: steroid inhalers.
Arfa recovered, but his early months with COVID ravaged his body. He lost 25 pounds and developed tremors. His health battles led to chronic fatigue syndrome and his heart raced uncontrollably. “He would go through waves of different symptoms,” Robinson says, and these included diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Six months after he first tested positive, he saw his gastrointestinal specialist, and even though he had tested negative overall by then, doctors found active coronavirus in his stomach. “He’s been through the ringer,” Robinson adds. “His whole family has. I always give him a hard time: ‘Man, your wife must hate you.'”
The story repeated itself, terribly, in September. Out of nowhere, Arfa’s fever spiked. He had pneumonia yet again. “My worst day,” he says. “I’m 36 years old! What the fuck is going on?”
But he recovered, and he feels slightly better these days — “it waxes and wanes,” he says. Despite fatigue and shakiness, Arfa is hopeful his COVID story is finally over. He was delighted to get the first vaccine dose Jan. 22, and is scheduled to receive the next one Feb. 12. “Everything’s pointing in the direction that he will do fantastic,” says Laura Libby, a pulmonologist and critical-care doctor who works with Arfa as a staffer for Pulmonary Consultants of New York. “The problem is, [his] symptoms are still disturbing. There’s an emotional cost to having to see doctors.”
Over the past 10 months, doctors have subtly changed the way they work with COVID long-haulers. Dozens of clinics have emerged in the U.S. to treat these patients, and doctors there are doing their best to give them crucial attention, not just for lung issues but for the heart, the nervous system, even the brain. “We are still learning about how to treat symptoms of what is probably post-COVID syndrome,” Dine says. “Neurologic, cardiac and pulmonary — those are probably the top three symptoms that I see. It helps to have a multidisciplinary team.”
Arfa’s 2020 wasn’t supposed to go that way. Joel was scheduled to play stadiums all year. Dennis Arfa had been hyping the agency’s Def Leppard-Motley Crue tour as potentially the biggest of last summer. Instead, Jarred’s life is about bracing for new symptoms and contacting still more doctors and specialists whenever they appear. “Every time you think you’re out of it, you’re not,” Arfa says. “You could be young, you could have the access and you could still be fucked.”
“I’m close to being better,” he adds. “I’m better than I was a few months ago. If that trajectory keeps out, I’m not expecting to be 100 — but if I get to 80, I’ll be happy.”