People with long COVID show symptoms that are unpredictable and inconsistent, ranging from difficulty breathing and fatigue to heart palpitations, dizziness, and problems with concentration. And the treatments are still under investigation.
Richard C. Becker, M.D., co-director of UC Health’s new multidisciplinary clinic for COVID-19 long haulers, which opened in August, grapples for the best word to summarize the experience. “It’s frightening, humbling, and emotionally draining. All of those things would probably capture it,” he says with a laugh.
Co-director Rachel Foot, M.D., describes the unknowns in treating long COVID patients. “There’s no simple, ‘OK, we’ll start this medicine,’ ” Foot says. “It requires a lot more intuition, a lot more investigation.”
But working with long COVID patients is rewarding, says Foot, a critical care specialist in lung diseases. “These patients are somewhat desperate and they’re wanting whatever help can be provided to them. ”
Becker, who is the director of the UC Heart, Lung and Vascular Center, says physicians typically see crises as calls to action. “As far back as I can recall in medicine and society, people came forward when there was a need,” Becker says.
And the need is growing. The World Health Organization has reported close to 300 million global COVID cases since the virus emerged in 2020. Experts estimate up to 40 percent of individuals who experience COVID will still have symptoms four months later, Becker says. “Some would say it’s twice that.”
As Foot explains, many people don’t seek medical care for lingering COVID effects. “People I know say, ‘I still can’t smell, but I’m just dealing with it.’ One sentiment a lot of patients have expressed is feelings of guilt that they survived COVID but still aren’t able to function and do daily activities and live their life.”
COVID long haulers face complex circumstances, Becker says. “They’re expected to recover and go back to work, go back to school and taking care of family.” Many try to push their way through, but that rarely works. “This is not an overcoming through willpower condition,” he says. “It’s real.”
The medical community acknowledges that reality, Foot says. “We want the greater community to understand that what these patients are experiencing is real and they need to be supported—medically, emotionally, and socially.”
Becker finds issues of racial inequities particularly troubling. Research has shown that people of color are at greater risk of contracting COVID, but few have sought care for long COVID through the clinic.
The doctors believe researching patterns in patient data will help differentiate long COVID from other conditions and determine what factors make people more susceptible to lingering effects. “Right now, we have more questions than answers,” Becker says. We have been burning the midnight oil.”
Richard C. Becker, M.D.
Physician, UC Health
Director, UC Heart, Lung & Vascular Institute
Professor of Internal Medicine, UC College of Medicine
Rachel Foot, M.D.
Physician, UC Health
Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, UC College of Medicine