Of the long-haulers Putrino has surveyed, most are women. Their average age is 44. Most were formerly fit and healthy. They look very different from the typical portrait of a COVID-19 patient—an elderly person with preexisting health problems. “It’s scary because in the states that are surging, we have all these young people going out thinking they’re invincible, and this could easily knock them out for months,” Putrino told me. And for some, months of illness could turn into years of disability.

Our understanding of COVID-19 has accreted around the idea that it kills a few and is “mild” for the rest. That caricature was sketched before the new coronavirus even had a name; instead of shifting in the light of fresh data, it calcified. It affected the questions scientists sought to ask, the stories journalists sought to tell, and the patients doctors sought to treat. It excluded long-haulers from help and answers. Nichols’s initial symptoms were so unlike the official description of COVID-19 that her first doctor told her she had acid reflux and refused to get her tested. “Even if you did have COVID-19, you’re 32, you’re healthy, and you’re not going to die,” she remembers him saying. (She has since tested positive.)…

It’s not enough, argues Nisreen Alwan, a public-health professor at the University of Southampton who has had COVID-19 since March 20. She says that experts and officials should stop referring to all nonhospitalized cases as “mild.” They should agree on a definition of recovery that goes beyond being discharged from the hospital or testing negative for the virus, and accounts for a patient’s quality of life. “We cannot fight what we do not measure,” Alwan says. “Death is not the only thing that counts. We must also count lives changed.”

Only then will we truly know the full stakes of the pandemic. As many people still fantasize about returning to their previous lives, some are already staring at a future where that is no longer possible.