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B.C. doctors building network to treat, study COVID-19 'long-haulers'

Last Updated Feb 9, 2021 at 3:41 pm PST

FILE - A nurse wears and mask and holds a stethoscope. (Steve Russell via Getty Images)

Doctor says many patients have been having trouble convincing physicians their post-COVID symptoms are real

Information about post-COVID issues currently coming from elsewhere; doctors want B.C.-specific data

Three clinics in Vancouver, Fraser Valley dedicated to patients dealing with long-haul COVID symptoms

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – B.C. is building a network of doctors across the province to treat and study people who suffer COVID-19 complications long after the virus is gone.

Dr. Adeera Levin, provincial lead for the Post COVID-19 Interdisciplinary Clinical Care Network, says they are set up to both treat patients and study the new set of symptoms.

Some patients have reported heart, lung and kidney problems, as well as blood clots, fatigue, brain fog, muscle weakness, dizziness, and depression, after recovering from the initial illness. Levin says the team doesn’t want to “over-medicalize” symptoms that may not actually be relevant, “but at the same time, you want to understand it and be able to help people.”

The network, which includes doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and social workers, will create a “kind of safety net” and “a place where we can learn together as well as offer current state-of-the-art advice and therapies when they are available,” Levin said.

Dr. Jane McKay, co-chair of Clinical Care Coordination Working Group, says with so many unknowns about complications that can follow the virus, many patients have faced challenges in getting doctors to believe their symptoms are real. She wants patients to know they believe them.

“We are well aware this is a health problem. We are taking it very seriously at a provincial level and we are putting in resources as fast as possible to help general practitioners [and] primary-care providers access information for their patient population.”

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Levin says adapting to the new disease has been challenging for all involved.

“It’s overwhelming mostly for the patients and their families but it’s also overwhelming for the health care system because we are having to learn about and treat at the same time a new condition,” she says

Because B.C.’s first wave was relatively contained, it is only now — in the second wave and the surge in cases — that McKay says the province is seeing more people dealing with long-term effects. The team can only estimate how many in B.C. have post-COVID complications, based on what has happened elsewhere.

“What we know from published data: 75 to 90 per cent of patients that are hospitalized with severe illness and 10 per cent not hospitalized, may experience what we are calling ‘long-COVID’ — We’re still trying to determine those numbers are here in our province,” she says.

Levin says information about the illness is also coming mainly from around the world.

She noted it is possible people in other countries and health care systems have different responses and healing trajectories, so it’s vital to gather this data in B.C.

“About 30 per cent of people will show quite significant improvement by six months, so that’s important to be able to tell people. We haven’t had it here for a year so we are hoping that as those people get better at six months, so they’ll continue to improve at … nine months and 12 months. So, one of the challenges is can we properly, systematically study and understand these people in a systematic way over time so we can give them the best advice based on our knowledge?”

McKay hopes their research will allow them to develop some pattern to seemingly random symptoms.

There are three clinics in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley dedicated to patients dealing with long-haul COVID symptoms. The immediate focus of the network is to give physicians around the province the information they need to treat patients and also gather information from and about those people.

Levin also wants to focus on enabling patients to navigate their symptoms and get to the right place at right time, pointing out some will need specialists while others will only need the help of a GP.

McKay says what they ultimately want is answers to the medical challenges related to COVID and the most effective treatments for patients.