UNC Health clinic treats COVID-19 long haulers

Judith Retana

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Up to 30 percent of people who get COVID-19 may continue to feel symptoms even after they’re considered recovered. Doctors call them the COVID-19 long haulers.

Before COVID-19, John Wood lived an active lifestyle.

“It’s proving to be difficult to resume life completely as normal,” he said.

Wood spoke with CBS 17 five months after his infection, back in August 2020. He said he was a sports official and had weight loss surgery in 2019 in an effort be healthier and live longer for his family.

Wood said it felt like he was starting from scratch, working his health up to what it once was.

“You look at stairs and its like, there’s no way I’m going to make it through this. But I’m alive and some people don’t have that benefit of that having suffered from COVID,” Wood said.

Treating long-haulers

UNC health now opening up a COVID Recovery Clinic to treat long haulers like him.

“A majority of referrals for our program are from patients who were never hospitalized from COVID and still have lingering symptoms,” said Dr. John Michael Baratta, assistant professor at UNC’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Baratta said he believed our health system was equipped to handle the needs of long-haulers, but he does expect this population to continue growing. It means he could also need more staff in the future.

Under the program, initial visits are typically done remotely to assess needs. Patients then come in to work with a doctor or specialists from a variety of fields if needed.

The program came together thanks to a collaborate effort between the UNC School of Medicine and a number of departments across the UNC Health system.

Baratta said because COVID-19 impacts a number of organs in complex ways, a holistic approach is needed to help patients succeed. While the clinic only has a few dozen patients now, the doctor said they already seeing progress in people seeking their help.

“Combining all those things we try to help our patients get our back to their prior activities,” Baratta said.

The clinic takes patients from within and outside the UNC Health system. Patients need to be referred to the clinic by their primary care physician.

Long-hauler data

A recent study out of the University of Washington found 30 percent of patients studied said their health and quality of life was worse than before their infection.

Another 8 percent said they weren’t able to carry out daily chores like lifting heavy objects, or stand or walking unassisted for more than a short period of time.

Fatigue and loss of sense of smell or taste were the most reported symptoms in post-COVID-19 patients.

Source: Sequelae in Adults at 6 Months After COVID-19 Infection study

Broken down by age long-haulers were:

18 to 36 year old: 27 percent37 to 64 old: 30 percent 65 and older: 45 percent

Why are some people seeing long-term impacts but not others?

As CBS 17’s Steve Sbraccia reported, scientists have begun to realize DNA holds the answer to how susceptible someone may be COVID-19.

Dr. Martin Ferris said genetics play a role into how sick you will get from the coronavirus.

Ferris studies genetics, vaccines, and immunology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine.

“Your DNA can make the difference between susceptibility and long-term immunity of infectious diseases,” he said.

As the pandemic flourished, the medical and research communities world-wide combined efforts to fight the virus. That work is now paying off. Click here for more on what scientists are learning from this research.


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