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Symptoms Aren’t Just ‘In People’s Heads’: Clinic Helps COVID-19 Long-Haulers Recover

Jae C. Hong
In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, ventilator tubes are attached to a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles.

Since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the U.S. last spring, millions of people have become infected with COVID-19, but not all of them have fully recovered.

Some people experience lasting and sometimes debilitating symptoms.  They are part of a population known as COVID long-haulers.

Physicians at UPMC noticed over the summer and into the fall that there were reports of people experiencing persistent symptoms for weeks and even months after their initial infection.

Dr. Alison Morris, division chief of pulmonary, allergy and critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said that led to the creation of the UPMC Post COVID-19 Recovery Clinic

“The clinic can engage the necessary specialists around the disease and offer patients a place where they could be seen,” said Morris, who serves as director of the recovery clinic.

She noted the symptoms are quite variable.

“Patients will complain of fatigue. They also will have shortness of breath and cough,” Morris said. “It can be a variety of other things as well such as joint pain. People have difficulty with their heart racing or their blood pressure going too high or too low."

She also said the clinic is seeing people with cognitive symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating and emotional issues. Patients can also have prolonged fevers.

“It’s really a spectrum of symptoms we’re seeing in these patients,” Morris said.

The clinic offers patients an array of services to help them recover.

"We can see them in our pulmonary clinic, we can refer them to cardiologists and infectious disease specialists. Also, many patients will benefit from physical therapy or cognitive rehabilitation similar to what’s done with patients who have a concussion,” Morris said.

Providing reassurance to people who haven’t fully recovered is important, too.

“We’re seeing patients who come in and they’re feeling that their symptoms are not being believed, but we certainly know that these symptoms can last for a long time and that they just aren’t in people’s heads,” Morris said.

More than 200 people have been treated at the clinic since it opened last year. Morris said studies are also ongoing at the University of Pittsburgh looking at a therapy that gives blood thinners to people at the onset of the illness and also after patients get out of the hospital to help mitigate some of the long term side effects of the virus.