People around the world have been living with COVID-19 for more than one year. In that time, they have learned that it can be unpredictable. While the attention of the medical community primarily has been focused on addressing the needs of acutely ill hospitalized patients with COVID-19, there are those who have recovered from initial infections, but continue to experience symptoms. These are the COVID long haulers. Community Healthcare System has established a team of multidisciplinary specialists to help guide recommended testing and treatment options for this group at the COVID Clinic.
“For mild initial COVID infections, recovery time is around two weeks and for severe disease, it is around three to six weeks,” explains Dylan Slotar, MD, infectious disease physician on staff at the hospitals of Community Healthcare System. “A person who continues to experience symptoms after this acute phase of illness could be considered a long-hauler. Lingering symptoms can be present in patients who had severe initial disease as well as in those whose initial infection was mild.”
A COVID patient who has spent weeks and even months on a ventilator, in many cases, will have some lasting effects to their mind and body. Called post-intensive care syndrome, this condition may include physical weakness and cognitive dysfunction (referred to as brain fog), marked by a loss of intellectual functions such as thinking, memory and reasoning. Patients with cognitive dysfunction have trouble recalling words, performing basic math and concentrating.
These symptoms are similar to some of the symptoms long-haulers experience.
“Common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath as well as cough and chest pain,” said Slotar. “Other complaints range from persistent loss of taste and smell to anxiety, depression, skin rashes and gastrointestinal issues including diarrhea. Some patients describe short-term memory loss and sensitivity to light and sounds. These patients often struggle to find appropriate medical care for their unrelenting and unpredictable symptoms.”
At Community Healthcare System’s COVID Clinic, multidisciplinary treatment options are targeted to the symptoms that the patient is experiencing. Many patients with symptoms of fatigue, respiratory and muscular issues benefit from physical, occupational and speech therapies. Patients with cognitive symptoms are also showing improvements from the same therapies used with concussion patients. Although the long lasting effects of COVID-19 are a new area of research, new research driven information is coming out on a regular basis that is helping to shape screening and treatment options.
“We are working closely with Community Healthcare System’s physical therapists, rehabilitation physicians (physiatrists), cardiologists, pulmonologists and other specialists to create a cohesive approach to patient care and ensure support is available when needed,” said Community Care Network practitioner Thomas Wilkins, DO, a COVID Clinic physician. “While our current methods are showing improvement for our patients, we will continue to incorporate new research and recommendations into our plan as information becomes available.”
Anyone who feels they have persisting symptoms is a candidate for evaluation, Wilkins said.
“We encourage those with persistent symptoms to first contact their primary care physician for an evaluation,” Wilkins said. “Primary care practitioners are well adapted to working with their own patients for many of these issues and have the advantage of being familiar with the patient’s known medical history and treatment plan for chronic conditions. This can significantly aid in directing the next best steps.”
“We are however, happy to see any patient at any time,” he said. “There is no formal referral required. They can call our COVID Clinic number to schedule an appointment.”
Community Healthcare System’s COVID Clinic hours are 8 am to 4 pm, Monday through Thursday and 8 am to 12 pm on Fridays. The clinic is located at 9042 Columbia Avenue, Suite B, Munster, with several satellite sites available through Community Healthcare System’s outpatient offices. Call 219-703-2448 for more information or visit online at COMHS.org/coronavirus.