CHICAGO — A year since it first emerged in the U.S., scientists have learned a lot about the novel coronavirus and how to treat it. But there is still much unknown about its long-term effects on the health of COVID-19 survivors. Now, a CDC-funded effort is underway to try and understand what life going forward will be like for long-haulers.
Carlos Olvera had to be hospitalized three times during his bout with COVID-19.
“It had been already over a month and it was part of protocol to get me tested again, and it turned out that I was positive on that third hospitalization,” he recalled.
Three months later, breathing is still a struggle for Olvera.
“Yeah, unfortunately, it’s kind of back," he said.
It may take years to truly understand the long-term impact COVID-19 has had on survivors like Olvera, but a major effort to gain that understanding has begun.
“Some of the estimates we've seen is 30 percent of people who have this infection with COVID-19 can have some sort of long-term findings,” said Dr. Bala Hota, chief analytics officer and infectious disease expert at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Dr. Hota's team is taking the lead on a national study to assess the long-term complications experienced by COVID-19 survivors.
“It's crucial we document what's the average duration, what's the burden of this” said Dr. Hota. “Is it reversible?”
Over the next two years, the study will track 3,600 people with new COVID-19 symptoms and 1,200 people without.
Enrollment is underway, or beginning soon, across eight health systems in Washington, Illinois, Texas, Connecticut, California and Pennsylvania.
Dr. Monnie Wasse leads the post-COVID clinic at Rush University Medical Center, where COVID long-haulers are receiving follow-up treatment with a team of specialists.
“There are a myriad of symptoms that continued on that patients are continuing to experience six, seven, eight months, following their diagnosis,” she explained.
Some of those lingering symptoms that have been documented include organ damage in the heart, lungs and brain, blood clots, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and anxiety, as well as impacts on neurocognitive function.
“It's patients that have not been hospitalized who tend to have more of a moderate to mild case of COVID that actually are the ones that end up with longer-term symptoms that are smoldering symptoms,” said Dr. Wasse.
For survivors like Olvera, three months after being hospitalized and recently vaccinated, he still gets headaches, brain fog and shortness of breath.
“Patients like myself that are called ‘long haulers,’ we want to get better,” he said.
This study could provide crucial insights into what the rest of his life could look like.
“We have hope that, one day, we'll kind of return to that normality, but it is a bit of a struggle every day," he said.