Local healthcare system not addressing needs of COVID-19 long-haulers

File photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / crampinini

People experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 long after they are considered a resolved case continue to put stress on the overall healthcare system.

They are known as COVID long-haulers. They experience symptoms of fatigue, headaches, brain fog, a residual cough, and shortness of breath well after their infection is considered resolved. However, it’s unclear just how many are still experiencing symptoms because, at the moment, no one is keeping track.

“There is no set criteria that has already been established so it would be hard for us to track down those people,” said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Wajid Ahmed. “There are clinical determinations and there could be some epidemiological determination, but so far I am not aware of any set definition for that and we don’t track that.”

Chief of Staff at Windsor Regional Hospital Dr. Wassim Saad estimates at least 10 per cent of people who test positive for COVID-19 will have lingering symptoms, while some studies suggest it could be up to 30-40 per cent.

“Once we get over the acute wave of this pandemic where you are seeing rapid infections and hospitalizations, we’re going to have to deal with the long-term complications of this pandemic,” said Dr. Saad.

Anna Bennett and her husband, both in their 60s, first tested positive for COVID-19 in April 2020. She experienced shortness of breath, chills, extreme headaches, vivid nightmares, and fatigue for about a month. Now, a year later, she still experiences headaches, chills, low energy, and shortness of breath on a regular basis.

“Yeah, we recovered but we’re still not living. We’re still sickly. You’re not positive but our quality of life is probably the same as when we were positive,” said Bennett.

Bennett has reached out to her primary health care provider a number of times but has yet to find relief. She had a consultation with a neurologist but was never referred for any testing and was told the headaches and brain fog would eventually go away.

“We can’t cut the grass, we’re out of breath,” said Bennett. “We can’t plan anything because we have to see how we feel… it’s disheartening, we can’t plan our life, it’s day by day.”

There are clinics in British Columbia, Toronto, and other parts of Ontario that have been set up to test and treat long-haul symptoms, but there are no similar resources in Windsor-Essex.

“For the long-haulers, I wish doctors would start trying to figure something out, it’s been a year of our lives that we’ve basically lost,” said Bennett.

Dr. Saad indicated Windsor Regional Hospital has recently partnered with the University Health Network to participate in a study to determine just how prevalent COVID long-haul symptoms are.

“There’s no good prediction rule for who is going to get long-haul symptoms. There are patients who are extremely ill, in the ICU, near death, they end up recovering and they don’t have any lingering symptoms. Then there are those who have very mild symptoms, don’t get admitted, never require oxygen, and are left with long-haul symptoms,” said Dr. Saad.

For the individuals who end up in hospital after contracting COVID-19, Dr. Saad says their stays could be anywhere from six weeks to up to four months. These long hospital stays put a strain on resources available for new patients.

“If you’re in the ICU you can technically be cleared of COVID, but because of the damage that it did to your internal organs, to your lungs, to your heart, to your brain even, you end up on an ICU. In some cases, we’re entering our third wave with patients that are still in the hospital and intubated from the second wave,” said Dr. Saad.

Currently, there are 17 patients at Windsor Regional Hospital who are considered resolved of COVID-19 but are still experiencing symptoms making a hospital stay necessary.