New Brunswick seeks to help people with long COVID, but timeline unclear

·4 min read
Fatigue, memory problems, anxiety and depression are some of the most common long COVID symptoms, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. (fizkes/Shutterstock - image credit)
Fatigue, memory problems, anxiety and depression are some of the most common long COVID symptoms, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. (fizkes/Shutterstock - image credit)

Help could soon be on the way for New Brunswickers who suffer from long COVID.

The Department of Health and both regional health authorities "aim to work together to a offer a trajectory of care" for those with long COVID, also known as post-COVID-19 condition, said department spokesperson Valerie Kilfoil.

She could not immediately provide an estimated timeline, but said the goal is to have teams trained on the "constantly evolving research … in conjunction with the objectives in the Provincial Health Plan."

Thursday is National Long COVID Awareness Day, organized by researchers with the Public Health Agency of Canada to shine a light on the need for better research, and better treatment.

New Brunswick has faced criticism from citizens and opposition politicians for being slow to address — or even acknowledge — the issue.

Last week, New Brunswick officials met with other provincial and territory representatives, medical and scientific experts to discuss emerging research regarding long COVID and existing care models from international and Canadian jurisdictions, said Kilfoil.

"Long COVID is a rapidly evolving field of study and the scientific community's understanding of COVID-19 continues to evolve daily," she said in an emailed statement.

"Many provinces and jurisdictions are taking stock of the emerging trends and research and are looking at ways to address the health care needs of patients experiencing long COVID symptoms."

The term long COVID, coined in 2020 as a Twitter hashtag by Dr. Elisa Perego, an honorary research fellow at University College London, to describe her own experience with the virus, refers to any of more than 200 symptoms that develop after severe, mildly symptomatic, or asymptomatic COVID-19 infection and cannot be explained by alternative diagnoses.

The most common symptoms, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, are fatigue, memory problems, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Affecting a 'significant proportion' of cases

Last month, New Brunswick's acting deputy chief medical officer of health, Dr. Yves Léger, said long COVID is affecting "a significant proportion of COVID cases," and is "quite debilitating for some."

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has said recent research indicates as many as half of people infected with the virus will go on to have symptoms of long COVID.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada have launched a survey to get a broad idea of how common it is for people to feel lingering effects after COVID-19 infection.

Only two provinces have "established co-ordinated patient care pathways and shared key learnings from their experiences," said Kilfoil. She did not identify the provinces.

"Common elements reported across the limited number of existing models across the globe included: primary care pathways, specialty clinics, standardized symptoms assessment tools, virtual care and access to rehabilitation services," she said.

Online national town hall

As part of Long COVID Awareness Day, a national town hall will be held online between 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. AT.

"We are teaming up with many organizations and individuals to bring awareness to this condition and prepare an effective response," organizers state.

Many countries, including the U.S. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the U.K., as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), have all created definitions of post-COVID-19 condition, or post-acute COVID sequelae (PACS).

But the lack of a standard definition across international health authorities and researchers "prevents us from effectively studying and measuring the prevalence of this condition," the organizers state.

"Canada has fallen behind and we are urging our health authorities to provide us with a proper definition and appropriate response."

Nova Scotia has post-COVID team

New Brunswick has a group of scientists in Moncton gathering as much information as possible on long COVID symptoms, what patients need to recover and the risk factors, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard told reporters last month.

"It's all still relatively new. So that data is still being collected. And we'll be working with our [regional health authority] partners and those who have a handle on long COVID to see how we need to proceed in the future," she said.

In Nova Scotia, health officials last fall started proactively calling COVID-19 patients three months after their initial diagnosis to ask whether they had lingering symptoms.

About half of patients over age 16 reported having one symptom. Ten per cent had some sort of functional impairment, such as brain fog or muscle weakness.

A post-COVID team now works with roughly 300 of those patients, offering access to health specialists and support groups to aid in their recovery.

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