AUSTIN (KXAN) — UT Health Austin and the Dell Medical School have launched the Post-COVID-19 Program to help research and develop treatment options for patients experiencing lingering symptoms following a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Dr. W. Michael Brode serves as medical director of the Post-COVID-19 Program and said in an educational video Monday that post-viral symptoms and illnesses aren’t new or exclusive to the coronavirus. Colloquially referred to as Long-COVID or Chronic COVID-19, post-viral illnesses are broken up into three separate categories:
- Acute COVID-19: Initial illness can last up to four weeks post-diagnosis
- Ongoing symptomatic COVID-19: Symptoms/illness can linger 4-12 weeks post-diagnosis
- Long or post-COVID: Symptoms/illness persist more than 12 weeks after diagnosis
What are some of the symptoms of Long-COVID?
For people who do contract COVID-19, most symptomatic patients will experience milder symptoms that can include a fever, chills, a cough, headaches and body fatigue. More extreme cases can then lead to higher inflammation within the immune system, which can damage organs. From there, the most extreme cases fall into the “thrombo-inflammatory phase,” which can include severe conditions like multiorgan failure, pulmonary embolisms and myocarditis, Brode said.
The most severe COVID patients who experience organ damage can have their Long-COVID diagnosis studied through standard medical tests to see the damages’ extent and any improvements over time. However, many patients who develop Long-COVID have persistent, lingering viral symptoms such as fatigue and exhaustion, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell along with chest pain.
Long-COVID can also manifest itself in dysregulated immune responses such as gastrointestinal issues, nerve pain, ear ringing and brain fog.
How many people might have Long-COVID?
Brode said many patients being treated at UT’s post-COVID clinic are experiencing brain fog, fatigue and post-exertional malaise, or when an activity that typically isn’t strenuous tires someone.
Estimates vary on the number of people who are facing Long-COVID symptoms. Research from the Department of Veterans Affairs found approximately 7% of patients studied still struggled with post-viral symptoms six or more months after an initial diagnosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s analysis found up to one out of every five adults who had COVID developed lingering symptoms that remained six or more months post-infection.
A study published in The Lancet by British researchers in June found summer 2021’s delta variant was linked to a higher concentration of Long-COVID cases compared to this past winter’s omicron surge. The research found 11% of participants who developed COVID from the delta variant experienced Long-COVID symptoms, compared to 4.5% of patients surveyed following an omicron COVID diagnosis.
Brode referenced data compiled by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation that approximates more than 87 million people have developed and survived a COVID diagnosis in the United States. Based on the VA’s more conservative study finding 7% of COVID cases developed into Long-COVID—that would mean roughly 6 million people developed Long-COVID from the overall pool of 87 million.
Brode said Long-COVID diagnoses can be linked to the severity of illness a patient developed during an initial bout of COVID. Several multisystem diseases and lingering symptoms tend to develop in older patients and those with a higher body mass index. Other studies have found women, those with a history of asthma or other preexisting lung conditions and those with existing autoimmune complications are also at higher risk.
COVID and multisystem disease impacts
There are four key areas where researchers on concentrating Long-COVID studies:
- Chronic inflammation on the central nervous system, similar to “chemo brain” was reported in cancer patients undergoing treatment
- Microcirculation dysfunction: A condition found in some young, healthy COVID patients whose heart and lungs pump blood well, but have difficulty extracting oxygen during microcirculation of blood through the small blood vessels
- Neurological and nervous system problems due to damages made to small fiber nerves; these nerves help regulate blood flow, heart rate and the gastrointestinal system
UT Long-COVID treatment focuses
For patients navigating Long-COVID, research and treatment includes checking up on direct organ damage for patients who experienced more severe COVID diagnoses, primarily looking for potential lung scarring. Currently, there are no testing options available that are specific to detecting Long-COVID due to variabilities in symptoms.
UT’s program includes mental health screenings and energy management behavioral tactics to help recondition patients back to pre-COVID activities. The program also focuses on counseling and symptom management resources for Long-COVID patients, whose symptoms could vary between six months and 1.5 years.