I-TEAM: Exclusive look inside Augusta University’s COVID study

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 7:17 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2021 at 7:29 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - For the first time ever, we’re getting an inside look at one of the largest and most important COVID-19 studies in the country. It’s happening right here in our own backyard at Augusta University, but it could help people all over the world.

Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia aren’t the only ones making history. Some of you might answer the call to help them write it.

You might say Sarah Moore is already recording COVID history. As our assistant news director, she helps lead our team here at News 12 behind the scenes, but now she’s seated on the other side of our cameras.

That’s because she’s on the other side of this story.

Reeya Patel: “What makes you want to participate in this study?”

Sarah: “Honestly, I’m just interested.”

Sarah got married last December. Before returning to work, she got tested at Augusta University’s drive-through testing site. It was just a precaution; Sarah didn’t think she had COVID. She was surprised when she tested positive.

The newlyweds quarantined. Sarah had zero symptoms, and her husband tested negative. When researchers at MCG asked her to join their study, she wondered if she’d even be helpful.

Dr. Rutowski: “We will do a blood draw this morning.”

Dr. Elizabeth Rutkowski is the co-principal investigator for the COVID-19 Neurological and Molecular Prospective Cohort Study in Georgia, or CONGA for short.

Our I-Team first told you about this study more than a year ago when both she and the other co-principal investigator, MCG Dean Dr. David Hess, sat down with us for their very first interview together via a computer. They said they wanted to follow 500 people who had COVID for five years.

That includes asymptomatic people like Sarah. At least, Sarah thought she was asymptomatic.

“I’ve had some, like heart palpitations. I don’t know if that’s anxiety,” Sarah said.

“That’s definitely something we’re seeing,” said Dr. Rutkowski.

Sarah’s been taking beta blockers for a few months to keep her heart rate down. Before this appointment, it never even crossed her mind any of this could be connected to COVID.

“Maybe I’m just getting older, and I can’t cope with stress anymore,” Sarah said. “It’s been really eye opening to know that maybe COVID played a role in something that I just thought was part of...part of who I was.”

Dr. Rutkowski says they’re seeing this in a lot of patients, especially women, and because some symptoms don’t show up for weeks or even months, it’s easy to for patients to overlook them. .

“Brain fog, headaches, insomnia, depression and anxiety. They’re sky high,” said Dr. Rutkowski.

Sarah said she’d recently had ALL of those. Because those symptoms are difficult to quantify, doctors are also studying something they can measure: markers of inflammation. Dr. Rutkowski believes those will help unlock some of the mystery of long COVID. That’s why they’re drawing blood at each appointment.

They’re also asking patients to take a series of seemingly strnage tests. They are asked to repeat complex sentences and follow instructions to test movement and balance. While it seems a little odd, none of it is random. Every word and every movement has been carefully chosen; each is testing a different part of Sarah’s brain and how it communicates with different parts of Sarah’s body.

Then comes the iPad test. Dr. Rutkowsi warned Sarah it’s very difficult.

It started easy enough, but then it became very clear one needs a photographic memory to ace it. It’s supposed to be hard because it’s supposed to really work your brain.

Reeya Patel, a clinical research associate, says she was most surprised by the taste and smell tests.

“Some people will report, you know, ‘Nothing smells odd to me. Or tastes odd to me,’” Patel said. “And then you get the results back, and you’re like, definitely something has been changed here.”

Patients take the smell and taste tests when they leave. Sarah’s experience back at the station was also a bit unexpected. She seemed to be pretty confident about smells, but tastes proved to be quite the challenge. Unfortunately, we won’t get to know her scores, but it was obvious to Sarah her senses had been affected.

That’s one of the reasons this study is so important. Doctors at MCG aren’t collecting data from questionnaires like a lot of other COVID studies. They are doing thorough testing and thorough exams.

They’ve found their results are much different than what patients are reporting.

They are also paying attention to different patients. The I-Team combed FDA data about clinical trials and found only 8 percent of all patients in all clinical trials in 2020 were black. From 2015 to 2019, that number was only 7 percent. Diversity is important, so doctors at MCG are making sure 40 to 50 percent of their patients in this study are black. They’ve partnered with churches to help spread the word in the black community, and they hope this story helps to reach even more people. Dr. Rutowski hopes “this very special population can trust us and see the value of our study and how much their help is needed.”

Dr. Jason Brown knows what a lot these patients are going through. He lost his taste and smell when he had COVID and getting them back was…interesting.

“It did kind of smell like smoke or kind of like a chlorine...kind of pool smell for a little bit,” Dr. Brown said.

So many of you told the I-Team the same thing. Dozens told us they’ve been dealing with a constant smell of cigarette smoke or a camp fire-like smell. Dr. Brown believes our bodies are just trying to protect us.

“Smoke is just one of those primal things that we’re baseline supposed to register as, like, ‘this is something dangerous, we should it should be avoided,” said Dr. Brown.

As for Sarah, she invited our cameras along in hopes we could all learn something as we go through this experience with her. After all, doctors aren’t the only ones studying COVID in real time. Journalists are too. We’re all in this pandemic together – so we might as well learn from each other.

Researchers called Sarah to take part in this. They had her info from when she tested positive at their drive-through site, but you didn’t have to get your results from AU, and you don’t have to wait on a call.

You can sign up at COVID-19 Neurological and Molecular Prospective Cohort Study in Georgia.

This is a five-year study, and we plan to follow Sarah all the way through.

If you choose to take part, you can be paid for your time. You get $25 for your first visit and then $50 for each appointment after that. It is only one appointment a year.

They are looking for 500 people. At last check they had 336 so hopefully they’ll now be able to add some News 12 viewers to the list.

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