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In The Face Of Many Unknowns, Pittsburgh Health Systems Devote Resources To Cure Long COVID

A man wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walks with a dog, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Northeast Philadelphia.
Matt Slocum
A man wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus walks with a dog, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Northeast Philadelphia.

Perhaps as many as 30% of people who get COVID-19 experience long-term effects of the disease.

While COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, many so-called “long-hauler” patients also suffer from ongoing fatigue, depression and brain fog, as well as cardiac and neurological issues. Medical systems around the U.S. have opened clinics that focus on this patient population, including Allegheny Health Network and UPMC.

“As we see these patients and follow them, we're going to learn more from them as well,” said Dr. Tariq Cheema, a pulmonologist and lead physician at AHN’s Post COVID-19 Recovery Clinic. “There’s no clear cut guidelines on how to treat them at this point.”

Cheema said the clinic, which opened about six weeks ago, already has more than 50 patients enrolled. One of the first things the team does with new patients is screen for life-threatening complications potentially caused by COVID.

“Like strokes and heart failure and sudden cardiac arrest, because a lot of those patients get missed, and the only time you find out is when they end up in an ER in distress,” he said.

COVID can affect many different organs, and other common long-hauler concerns include numbness, weakness, depression, brain fog and instability while walking.

“Because this virus does affect the nervous systems it can affect your vocal cords for instance, and what you can do in those cases are speech therapy,” said Cheema. “When it comes to gait instability, you can do physical therapy.”

Like AHN, UPMC’s Post-COVID Recovery Clinic also takes a multidisciplinary approach to treatment.

“We’re still trying to figure out and get to the heart of what’s going on,” said UPMC’s Dr. Michael Risbano. “I think it’s going to be very interesting [to see] how people cluster together.”

Risbano said that a patient’s treatment plan can be dictated by their medical history. A younger person who was healthy before the pandemic is likely going to experience different effects of the virus when compared to someone who has heart disease and diabetes, even if both are long-COVID patients.

“Each patient is coming with different angles,” said Risbano, who is the clinic’s co-director. “We’ve yet to find a unifying diagnosis that puts them together.”

But like Cheema, Risbano believes that answers are coming.

“Really, the only way we are going to flesh this out is by having people to come in, and analyze the and their history,” he said.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.