Post-COVID Clinics Search for Answers for Long Haulers

When COVID-19 cases surged into the Bay Area in December 2020, Kenny Wong, RN, remembers an unprecedented winter spent caring for COVID-19 patients in the ICU at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center.

For Wong, the pandemic also took a personal toll when he learned that his beloved aunt in New York had died from COVID-19 complications.

“So many COVID-19 patients were admitted to the hospital with respiratory failure,” Wong said. “Even upon discharge, there were patients who continued to have symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, and sometimes a need for oxygen.”

Kenny Wong, RN

Many of Wong’s former COVID-19 patients are now being seen at UCSF Health’s Optimal clinic. Founded in May 2020 by Lekshmi Santhosh, MD, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at UCSF Health, the clinic is one of many specialized post-COVID care centers across the country.

Staffed by a multidisciplinary team, these centers treat COVID-19 patients who continue to have symptoms months after they have recovered from the acute phase of the illness.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) refers to long-term COVID-19 symptoms as PASC (post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2). Post-COVID syndrome, long COVID, or long-term COVID are terms that are also used. Patients living with post-COVID syndrome are often called “long haulers.”

In It for the Long Haulers

Megan Kelso, RN, works in the Post-COVID Care Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “Our post-COVID patients are experiencing lasting symptoms that create an overall sense of uneasiness,” Kelso said. “It’s imperative to allow enough time for the patients to voice their concerns and for us to be exceptional listeners and try to alleviate their anxiety.”

Kelso said that while the Baylor Post-COVID clinic treats patients of all ages, the majority are between 40 and 60 years old, and there’s an almost 2 to 1 female-to-male ratio.

Post-COVID clinics, like the one at Baylor, were launched to offer long haulers the specialized care they need under one roof. Many of the patients have multiple system concerns.

A study conducted by the Stanford School of Medicine and published in the May 26, 2021, JAMA Network Open, found that 70% of COVID-19 patients in studies, most of whom were hospitalized, reported 84 different symptoms months after they became ill.

Some of the more common long hauler symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Headaches
  • Pulmonary issues
  • Brain fog
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Memory issues

A project to study long COVID was launched this past February by the NIH, which is allocating $1.5 billion towards research “to identify the causes and ultimately the means of prevention and treatment of individuals who have been sickened by COVID-19, but don’t recover fully over a period of a few weeks.”

Post-COVID Treatments Can Vary

Norma Wright, RN

Norma Wright, RN, is a clinical coordinator on the Post-Acute COVID-19 team at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. The team is a collaboration between the Department of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation …read more

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