UT Health, Dell Med launch long-term COVID research program

AUSTIN (KXAN) — UT Health Austin and the Dell School of Medicine launched the Post-COVID-19 Program to help research and develop treatment options for patients experiencing lingering symptoms after a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Dr. W. Michael Broad serves as medical director of the Post-Covid-19 Program and said in an educational video Monday that post-viral symptoms and illnesses are not new or unique to the coronavirus. Colloquially referred to as Long-COVID or chronic COVID-19, post-viral illnesses fall into three distinct categories:

  • Acute COVID-19: Initial illness may last up to four weeks after diagnosis
  • Ongoing symptomatic COVID-19: Symptoms/illness may last 4-12 weeks after diagnosis
  • Long or Post-Covid: Symptoms/illness persisting for more than 12 weeks after diagnosis

What are some of the symptoms of Long-COVID?

In people who contract COVID-19, most symptomatic patients will experience milder symptoms, which may include fever, chills, cough, headache, and body fatigue. More extreme cases can lead to higher inflammation in the immune system, which can damage organs. From there, the most extreme cases fall into the “thrombo-inflammatory phase,” which can include severe conditions such as multiorgan failure, pulmonary embolism and myocarditis, Broude said.

The most severe COVID patients who suffer organ damage can have their Long-COVID diagnosis investigated through standard medical tests to see the extent of the damage and any improvements over time. However, many patients who develop Long-COVID have persistent, prolonged viral symptoms such as fatigue and exhaustion, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell along with chest pain.

Long-COVID can also manifest in dysregulated immune responses such as gastrointestinal problems, nerve pain, ringing in the ears, and brain fog.

How many people can have Long-COVID?

Broad said many patients treated at UT’s Post-Covid Clinic experience brain fog, fatigue and malaise after exertion or when an activity that is not normally strenuous makes someone tired.

Estimates vary depending on the number of people who are experiencing Long-COVID symptoms. A Department of Veterans Affairs study found that approximately 7 percent of patients surveyed were still struggling with post-viral symptoms six or more months after initial diagnosis. Analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that up to one in five adults who have had COVID develop lingering symptoms that last six or more months after infection.

A study published in The Lancet by British researchers in June found that the summer 2021 delta variant was associated with a higher concentration of Long-COVID cases than last winter’s omicron peak. The study found that 11% of participants who developed delta-variant COVID had Long-COVID symptoms, compared to 4.5% of patients surveyed after an omicron COVID diagnosis.

Broad cited data compiled by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation that said more than 87 million people have developed and experienced a COVID diagnosis in the United States. Based on the more conservative VA study, which found that 7% of COVID cases developed into Long-COVID — that would mean roughly 6 million people developed Long-COVID out of a total pool of 87 million.

Broad said Long-COVID diagnoses may be related to the severity of the disease the patient developed during the initial bout of COVID. Several multisystem diseases and prolonged symptoms tend to develop in older patients and those with a higher body mass index. Other studies have found that women, those with a history of asthma or other pre-existing lung conditions, and those with pre-existing autoimmune complications are also at higher risk.

Impact of COVID and multisystem diseases

There are four key areas in which researchers are concentrating on Long-COVID studies:

  • Chronic inflammation of the central nervous system similar to “brain chemotherapy” has been reported in cancer patients undergoing treatment
  • Microcirculatory Dysfunction: A condition found in some young, healthy COVID patients whose heart and lungs pump blood well but have difficulty extracting oxygen during microcirculation of blood through small blood vessels
  • Neurological problems and problems with the nervous system due to damage to small nerve fibers; these nerves help regulate blood flow, heart rate, and the gastrointestinal system

UT Long-COVID treatment focuses

For patients undergoing Long-COVID, investigations and treatment include checking for direct organ damage for patients who have suffered more severe COVID diagnoses, primarily looking for potential pulmonary scarring. Currently, there are no testing options available that are specific for detecting Long-COVID due to differences in symptoms.

UT’s program includes mental health screenings and behavioral energy management tactics to help patients return to pre-COVID activities. The program also focuses on counseling and symptom management resources for long-term COVID-19 patients whose symptoms can range between six months and 1.5 years.

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