More resources needed to treat long COVID: expert

With few options, many in Quebec have turned to each other for help.

Jesse Feith 5 minute read December 1, 2021

Sensing it was an emerging problem early in the pandemic, Dr. Guillaume Jourdan took it upon himself to start treating patients suffering from what’s known as long COVID.

Working on his own out of Chicoutimi, Jourdan first dedicated a half-day per week to the task. Later, he started squeezing in whatever consultations he could after his regular shift on Thursdays.

But faced with a lack of resources and time crunch, Jourdan was forced to scale back the initiative in October. He will continue treating the 60 or so patients he has already seen, but can no longer take on more.

“It breaks my heart, but I’ve carried this on my shoulders in Saguenay—Lac-St-Jean for a year and a half,” Jourdan, a microbiologist and infectious-disease specialist, said in a recent interview.

“At one point, if you don’t stop you can hit a personal wall. And I don’t think it’s any better for the population to have (another doctor) out with burnout.”

For those suffering from long COVID in Quebec, Jourdan’s decision points to a larger problem in the province: There is still no clear path to care for them, and the few doctors providing the help needed are mostly doing so on their own with little or no support.

First reported in the spring of 2020, long COVID commonly refers to when people continue to experience symptoms  —  from cognitive issues to debilitating fatigue  —  weeks or months after being infected.

The provincial government has not put a number to how many people have the condition in Quebec. Research suggests 10 to 30 per cent of infected patients will develop some form of long COVID, however, which could mean more than 100,000 Quebecers may already be in its grips.

The Health Ministry says there are three official post-COVID clinics operating in Quebec: a research clinic in Montreal, an ambulatory clinic in Sherbrooke and a rehabilitation program offered to residents in Montérégie-Ouest.

In Chicoutimi, Jourdan started treating patients with persistent symptoms in the fall of 2020, when it became clear to him the issue needed to be addressed.

“This is a problem that hits young, active people. People who need to work, need to make an income,” he said of why he took an interest in it. “And it’s really hard to see the impact it can have on them.”

Jourdan says he approached the local health authority about freeing up resources for the project at the time, but was quickly told that wouldn’t be possible given ongoing staff shortages.

This spring, when more research was available on long COVID, he once more argued for the need for more resources, but the response was the same. Ultimately, he believes a more structured approach will be necessary, bringing together a network of specialists, family doctors, physiotherapists and psychologists.

Asked if he’s disappointed Quebec hasn’t dedicated more resources to fighting long COVID, Jourdan said he believes it’s further evidence of the larger issues plaguing the health network.

“The network is out of steam. There’s a lack of resources for all sorts of problems. So now we have a new problem, and it’s not being taken care of,” he said.

“And since it’s a top-down system, if you start from the bottom and try to make your way up, you hit a wall,” he added. “So as long as there isn’t a real political will to tackle (long COVID), I don’t think it will change.”

The regional health authority in Saguenay—Lac-St-Jean did not respond to a request for comment on this story by deadline. Quebec’s Health Ministry, for its part, has said it’s waiting for INESSS, the provincial health institute, to provide a road map for how people with long COVID should be treated in the health system.

In the meantime, with little in the way of official guidance or help, many in Quebec have turned to each other to try to navigate the uphill battle they face.

Carrie Anna McGinn is a moderator of a Facebook support group for people suffering from long COVID in the province, called J’ai Eu La Covid-19 Longue  —  Québec Long-Haulers Support Group.

The group shares up-to-date information on the resources available and the latest research on the topic. It also gives people a place to share their frustrations with the lack of care and, often, express their worries and concerns about their own health.

“What if my condition is permanent?” wrote one member this week. “And if I never get better … how will I live?”

McGinn, 39, contracted COVID in December 2020 and continues to deal with a long list of symptoms. They include brain fog and crushing fatigue, as if she was “wrapped in a lead blanket all day.”

She referred to the few Quebec doctors providing care on their own time as “angels,” but said it’s unacceptable the province has yet to put something more structured in place.

People are doing their best to navigate the system themselves, she added, going from family doctor to specialist and back again. But the lack of co-ordination is an added frustration on top of everything else they’re already dealing with.

She believes if the government doesn’t do more to address the issue soon, it’s only a matter of time before it comes to a head.

“There’s going to be a tsunami of disability coming from people like me, people who were in the prime of their lives  —  healthy, happy, parents, workers,” McGinn said. “Now we’re at home, we’re ill, and we have no care or help or support from the government.”

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