U of C researchers see large increase in number of COVID-19 long-haulers

Bill Kaufmann 5 minute read October 13, 2021

Dani Pohn, (in the exam bed) a COVID-19 long hauler, chats with Dr. Satish Raj, MD, researcher Jacquie Baker in Calgary on Wednesday, October 13, 2021. Jim Wells / Postmedia

When Dani Pohn’s recovery from a first wave bout of COVID-19 stalled four months later, worried exasperation set in.

While relieved her initial illness didn’t require hospitalization, the Calgarian’s fear she’d become one of many so-called COVID long-haulers became a new frustration.

“I’d notice an improvement every two weeks and then that plateaued in October (2020),” said Pohn, 37, a respiratory therapist.

“I wasn’t improving anymore, no matter what I did, I couldn’t increase my (physical and mental) capacity.”

Last May, she was diagnosed with having autonomic issues associated with COVID-19, symptoms that leave the disease’s survivors with symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heart rates, fatigue, memory and concentration loss, and depression.

Until that diagnosis, “at first, you feel it’s all in your head,” said Pohn.

Sixteen months after contracting the virus in an outbreak at a downtown Calgary condo building, Pohn said she struggles with daily episodes of fatigue, nausea and mental fog rendering her unable to work, a condition Dr. Satish Raj can’t guarantee will ever be reversed.

“Once you reach a year with this . . . I’m not sure it’s all going to go away,” Raj said to Pohn, who sat a few steps away hooked up to monitors displaying her heart activity and blood pressure.

Said Pohn: “It’s mostly frustrating.”

But both are harnessing that sentiment to unlock the mysteries of the virus’s effect on the body’s autonomic system.

Pohn has been advising Raj on creating a nationwide research effort that will study 180 COVID-19 survivors with those symptoms, ranged against a control group of 40 healthy subjects.

“I’d like her to be a study participant, too,” said Raj, a clinician-scientist within the Libin Cardiovascular Institute at the University of Calgary.

The physician said he’s been seeing a marked increase in recent months in the number of patients at the Calgary Autonomic Investigation and Management Clinic at the U of C’s Cumming School of Medicine.

“That started in a meaningful way at the beginning of this year,” said Raj. “It was a trickle but it’s increased to the point that every day I get a referral.”

The waiting list to be treated at the clinic is six to eight months, he said, though that queue was long even before the pandemic.

Alberta’s health-care system was slow off the mark in monitoring long COVID syndrome, he said.

“It would have been fascinating to see on the onset of testing how common it is,” said Raj.

That’s the main focus, he said, of the research set to begin this fall at six sites across the country “so that we can have a rational approach to know what we’re treating.”

Understanding the scope and nature of the long COVID phenomenon has been slow in coming, with estimates of the number of people suffering from it ranging from five to 40 per cent of those recovering from the virus, said Raj.

“It’s not as if we know exactly what to do or have the resources to do it . . . we’re going into this a little blind,” he said.

“We have very little data because COVID-19 is so new.”

Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board statistics give a sense of the scope of the issue in the province. Data through the end of April 2021 showed the WCB accepted 8,288 claims for workers who got COVID-19 in the course of their employment, with 11 per cent of those people missing more than 21 days of work.

A common complaint among survivors dealing with lingering effects is the shortage of designated resources and the criteria required for being treated.

Pohn noted there’s also often a lack of understanding among family physicians.

“I was lucky — my family doctor had an understanding and was accepting of what I was going through,” she said.

There are four referral clinics specializing in long COVID in Alberta — at Peter Lougheed Centre and the Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary, plus two sites in Edmonton.

The enormity of the toll of long COVID is only starting to come into focus, said Raj, who points to Pohn as a sobering example.

“These are people who contribute so much to society, who drive the economy and we’ve lost a big chunk of them,” he said.

The added cost and stress to an already strained health-care system, he said, is likely to be profound and sustained.

“This is not going to go away fast — our clinics are just starting to see patients and there’s going to be a big tidal wave coming still,” said Raj.

But Pohn, who’s already participated in two long COVID studies, is hopeful the research funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will advance understanding of the syndromes and benefit people like her.

“I’m excited about every study — there’s no way you can develop treatments until you can pinpoint what’s happening,” she said.

The study is recruiting research participants, who can find out more by emailing autonomic.research@ucalgary.ca.


Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn


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