Post-COVID clinics treating “long-hauler” patients

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Millions may experience persistent symptoms even after they’ve recovered from their initial illness and develop what’s called “post-acute COVID-19 syndrome.” Simply put, they’re the “long-haulers.”

Clinics in the Omaha area are treating these patients, like Sarah Drummond who has been receiving occupational and physical therapy at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals Omaha Campus for a month. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 around Thanksgiving of 2020 and ended up intubated and in a coma for 5 weeks.

“I never thought COVID would make my muscle memory disappear like it has, but it has,” Drummond said.

At Madonna, her rehab work to build back her muscle strength has included water therapy, ambulation, and stair work. She’s relearning how to walk.

“It’s very difficult because you have to think ‘heel, toe, bend your knee, bend your hip,’ that muscle memory goes away after being in a coma for so long,” she said.

Drummond couldn’t feed herself when she got to Madonna a month ago, now she can walk on her own and she’s looking forward to hugging her 19-month old son when she goes home.

The rehab was tough, and muscle weakness is one of many persistent problems doctors are seeing in long-hauler patients.

Dr. Samuel Bierner says their most common symptoms are fatigue and breathlessness. Some also suffer from long-term nerve damage and lung issues.

“They have a tough time getting back to their normal level of activity,” said Dr. Bierner.

It’s not clear yet why the symptoms can stick around for weeks and even months after infection in some people, but not others. That’s what doctors hope to find out through testing and research at long-hauler clinics.

“We don’t yet know the full ramifications of this infection because it’s only been happening for the last year,” said Dr. Bierner.

UNMC’s main campus is home to another post-COVID clinic that sees between 5 and 10 patients a week- some were hospitalized with COVID, other’s infections weren’t as severe.

However, most are still struggling with the same long-term symptoms – fatigue and shortness of breath.

“I do think that is a bulk of the people who’ve had COVID who have symptoms after COVID and beginning to address those things so we understand wherein is the problem? Is it mixed with the lungs and the heart? That’s the objective,” said Dr. Dan Anderson.

The work at UNMC’s clinic is diagnosis-based, so the patients typically get blood tests to check the heart’s strength and function, and in some cases MRIs.

“Do we see areas of inflammation or anemia and swelling that we don’t see on any other tests, but that shows that we do see long term impacts of covid-19,” said Dr. Anderson.

Both doctors agree there is much to be learned about the long-term effects of covid-19. Doctor Bierner says there are nearly 100 studies being done worldwide on the subject so an answer may come relatively soon.

UNMC does plan to open another clinic in the future that will treat a wider spectrum of lingering symptoms.

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