One year after the star contracted COVID, she’s still suffering symptoms — and looking for answers

By Eileen Finan
March 11, 2021 09:00 AM
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emma samms
Credit: Courtesy Emma Samms

Emma Samms has just marked what she called a "strange anniversary."

One year ago, she fell ill with COVID-19 after returning to her U.K. home from a trip to the U.S., and she's been sick ever since. "Everybody said, '10 days and it will be over and you'll come out the other side,' " the soap star tells PEOPLE. "But some days I can barely get out of bed and it is the most incredibly frustrating thing."

Samms, 60, who has starred on Dynasty and General Hospital, is one of a growing number of people who have developed what doctors are now referring to as Long COVID, a collection of symptoms including extreme fatigue that last months after the original infection. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, "anywhere between 10 and 50 percent of people who got COVID may have substantial symptoms six months later."

After the more acute symptoms of her initial infection waned, Samms quickly realized something else was wrong when she tried to return to her workout routine and couldn't make it through. Then, she tried gardening outside her home in the Costwolds, about two hours from London, but even that was too exhausting.

"The fatigue that comes with Long COVID is not regular fatigue, it's not where I feel a bit sleepy," says Samms, who now keeps a packed bag at the ready in case she needs to make an emergency trip to the hospital. "It's the kind that you might imagine marathon runners feeling when you see them staggering over a finish line and they can barely stand up. Some days I don't want to get out of bed even if I have to go to the bathroom. Even that feels like too much effort."

Related Video: Michelle Obama Gets Real About Her COVID Year: Unexpected Blessings, Quarantine Hobbies & Depression and What's Next

For more on Emma Samms' story, and the Dynasty virtual reunion, pick up a copy of PEOPLE on newsstands now

On a good day — one that she's prepared for by resting up for the two days before — Samms has enough energy for a Zoom call for the interview, but you can still hear her stopping mid-sentence to catch her breath. "On a good day, I feel like there's a small dog sitting on my chest," she says of her labored breathing. "On a bad day, it feels like an elephant. It's so hard for me to catch my breath, to feel enough oxygen is in me. And that horrible sensation is constant."

Although self-described "Long-Haulers" have been chronicling the condition for months online, the medical community has only recently begun research into the illness, which Dr. Komaroff says appears to be another form of chronic fatigue syndrome. Last month, the National Institute of Health launched a new study into Long COVID, but when Samms first went to her own doctors, she says they were skeptical.  "They looked at me, an actress of a certain age, like 'Yeah, right.'" she recalls. "But I'm not a histrionic person. You find yourself getting defensive. I had to convince them that there's nothing psychosomatic about what I'm going through." 

Her experience, and her desire to find answers, prompted her gather her former Dynasty castmates together for a virtual reunion to benefit Long COVID research. "I've been so encouraged by the support that all of my old castmates have given me," Samms says of the March 20 fundraiser

Her prolonged illness – along with the restrictions of the pandemic ‑ has also meant that her planned return to General Hospital to reprise her role as Holly Sutton was put on pause.

Samms was supposed to fly to L.A. to begin a new storyline for the popular character, which she originated in 1982, but instead she and her partner, BBC presenter Simon McCoy, had to film a single scene at her U.K. home: "The scene was dramatic with me banging on the door to get out because I've been held hostage. Simon, who's not really been around acting, was quite traumatized — a good sign, I think!" 

Despite her life being smaller and more limited these days, Samms is staying positive. "I'm well aware that I am one of the lucky ones. So many people have had much, much more horrendous outcomes from COVID," Samms says. "And I'm not going to allow myself to worry about the possibility of being like this forever."