Long-term study to look at why some can't shake the symptoms of COVID-19

·4 min read
Quispamsis resident Emily Bodechon says the lingering effects of COVID-19 mimic the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Quispamsis resident Emily Bodechon says the lingering effects of COVID-19 mimic the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.

(Submitted by Emily Bodechon - image credit)

Emily Bodechon is one of roughly 1,200 New Brunswickers who have been deemed "recovered" from COVID-19 by Public Health — but the Quispamsis resident says she is far from back to normal.

More than 10 months after she tested positive for COVID-19, she's still suffering the effects of the disease — severe fatigue, headaches, coughing and shortness of breath.

And Bodechon didn't have one of the more serious cases of COVID-19. She was in hospital but not in intensive care. Yet some who were got better and their lives returned to normal fairly quickly.

A year-long study hopes to find out why there's such a varied response to COVID-19.

Dr. Angela Cheung, an internal medicine specialist and scientist at University Health Network in Toronto, is co-lead of the COVID-19 Prospective Cohort Study.

Cheung has been looking after COVID patients since March and says scientists still have a lot to learn about the virus and its long-term effects on people.

University Health Network
University Health Network

But to help those whose symptoms linger for months, she said, it's important to also study those who have recovered quickly and completely.

The study initially focused on three groups of patients — those who were in the ICU, those who were hospitalized but not in the ICU, and those who were not hospitalized.

Cheung said they have since added another group — those who did not get tested when they were sick. She explained that testing rules have changed over the last year, and those who would be tested now without question may not have met the criteria that was in place at the beginning of the pandemic.

"At the beginning of the pandemic," she said, "we didn't have a lot of tests available, so we had to prioritize who got tested."

Cheung said Bodechon's story is "very common."

She said it's not yet understood why some people recover quickly — often without experiencing any symptoms at all — while other people continue to be plagued by symptoms months later.

So I think Canada can definitely do better in terms of organizing some specialized clinics. - Dr. Angela Cheung

In the past, Cheung and a colleague conducted a long-term study on acute respiratory distress syndrome. Patients in that study suffered from infections that severely affected their lungs.

"They were in really bad shape and needed mechanical ventilation and were really sick."

Cheung said it's not surprising to see patients who spent a long time in the ICU take so long to recover. But with COVID, many of those still experiencing symptoms a year later had not even been hospitalized.

Cheung is hoping to recruit 2,000 patients for the study. Blood samples will be taken at regular intervals from both groups — long-haulers and those who recovered quickly — to see if there are differences that could help solve the mystery of why some take so long to recover.

"We are looking at antibody status. We're looking at inflammatory markers and genetics and other things. And that's because we want to figure out who are the folks who actually can recover faster and learn from these people and how can we make the folks that are not recovering as fast to try to help them along the path of recovery?"

Help for long-haulers

One of Bodechon's concerns was that long-haulers in New Brunswick don't have anywhere to turn for help. She said her family doctor is doing the best he can to treat individual symptoms as they surface, but there's no treatment regime for the collection of symptoms COVID leaves in its wake.

Cheung said Public Health isn't the answer. With the disease still in full swing, public health officials are "really overwhelmed" with trying to control the spread.

But she thinks there should be "centralized places where patients can go to get answers — up-to-date answers because things are changing every week — and to get up-to-date information."

Ideally, she said, such clinics should be established in all parts of the country, but at the moment, Cheung's group is only working with those located in British Columbia and Quebec.

"So I think Canada can definitely do better in terms of organizing some specialized clinics."

The study, funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, was initially planned for a year, but Cheung's group has asked for funding to be extended.