Jonathan Toews’ Long COVID diagnosis adds another concerning dimension to health issues

Toews’ admitted Sunday, when stepping away from the Blackhawks, that he’s battling not only CIRS but also Long COVID — which can cause fatigue, among other symptoms, for months or years after one recovers from the contagious stage of COVID-19.

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Jonathan Toews will return to the Blackhawks’ lineup Saturday against the Devils.

Jonathan Toews announced Sunday he’s stepping away from the Blackhawks due to health issues.

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

More than two years after his diagnosis with chronic immune response syndrome, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is still battling its draining effects.

That’s concerning. But it’s arguably even more concerning that Toews, when announcing Sunday his step away from the Hawks, also named Long COVID as his other condition.

The veteran forward had mentioned COVID as a potential contributing factor to his health issues during a 2021 interview with The Athletic, but this is the first time he has publicly identified himself as a Long COVID patient — meaning someone who continues experiencing adverse effects even after recovering from an active COVID-19 infection.

The good news is Toews’ overall condition doesn’t seem as dire as it did two years ago. He was still physically able to work out and skate last week, even if his body didn’t respond as desired. The Hawks’ optimism that he might return before the end of the season is also telling.

The bad news, however, is the longevity of these problems. All indications suggest Toews has been dealing with varying amounts of what coach Luke Richardson described as “fatigue and soreness” ever since he returned to action in September 2021 (and, of course, before that as well).

Two-plus years of fighting through low energy represents a long time in this sport, especially for a player who will turn 35 in April with 1,197 total games of wear on his tires.

It’s hard to predict the future with much certainty right now — even Toews likely doesn’t have much certainty — but it’s fair to declare his playing career is in jeopardy. Barring a significant improvement during the next few months, retirement could be a possibility this summer, as much as his competitive spirit may prompt him to resist it.

Just consider the testimony of Alex Stalock, who received a close firsthand look at Toews’ struggles while skating alongside him last week.

“It’s not easy,” Stalock said. “He’s going through something that a lot of people have no clue about. ... This group obviously needs him here and wants him here. To have a guy like that out of your lineup, it hurts. I know his No. 1 importance is health for himself.”

All of this information unfortunately matches up with what Dr. Benjamin Abramoff, director of the Post-COVID Assessment and Recovery Clinic at Penn Medicine, has seen in many of his patients.

“Long COVID is a very general term...[but] there are some symptoms that are very common,” Abramoff said. “One of the most prominent symptoms is fatigue and, going along with that, loss of physical endurance or exercise capacity. But there are a number of other symptoms: cognitive impairment, pain, insomnia. It can take many different forms.”

While Abramoff has seen patients’ symptoms fluctuate day-to-day or week-to-week, he thinks it would be “very unusual” for someone to nearly fully recover from Long COVID and then experience a relapse, lending further support to the theory Toews has quietly yet continuously battled this since 2020.

And although numerous clinical trials are currently studying possible treatments for Long COVID, nothing has been proven effective yet, meaning only symptomatic treatments — such as medicine to reduce fatigue — are available.

“[Long COVID] can be certainly more noticeable if someone is trying to go to these high levels of athletic performance,” Abramoff said. “There are definitely professional athletes and high-level amateur athletes who really have trouble getting back to their prior level.”

At this point, therefore, there’s little that can be done beyond hoping for the best for Toews.

Even if these conditions force his retirement from hockey, he still has the majority of his life left to live. His ability to enjoy that in good health remains most important.

“We’re supporting him, and we let him know that,” Patrick Kane said. “Hopefully he does what he has to do to feel better.”

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