I-TEAM: What’s the outlook for COVID-19 long-haul patients?

Published: May. 2, 2022 at 8:14 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Mask mandates are lifting. We just experienced our first full capacity Masters tournament in years, and we feel as close to normal as we’ve felt in a long time.

It’s more than just a feeling. Our I-TEAM found the numbers to back it up.

We found only six patients with COVID were admitted to Augusta University Medical Center in April compared to just a couple of months ago. In February, 153 patients in the hospital had COVID. The news is also good for our kids. Only one admission to the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

But unfortunately, there are still a lot of patients dealing with the effects of COVID long after their positive test.

Our I-TEAM is investigating the long-term outlook for long-haul COVID. It’s been 17 months since Marcia Bergtholdt tested positive for COVID. But some days, it feels like a different lifetime.

“I woke up in the middle of the night with nausea and a headache. I never get headaches. I just don’t get sick and achy. I thought, ‘uhh this is not good’,” she said.

Her initial case—was fairly mild and over pretty quickly. But she started to realize—some of her symptoms—weren’t going away.

“It really left me with the brain fog. That was the worst. That was really bad,” said Bergtholdt.

Respiratory issues—

“Shortness of breath. I could walk up those little steps and have to stop because I just couldn’t breathe,” she said.

Hair loss—

“For months, it fell out, just everywhere,” she said.

But the worst of it—

“What has stayed with me have been the headaches. Sometimes a little dizziness, but the headaches, they’ve never gone away. Ever. Sometimes they wake me up at the night, said Bergtholdt.

She’s one of an estimated 10 to 30 percent of COVID patients who experience Post-COVID after recovering.

The CDC defines Post-COVID as a wide range of new returning or ongoing health problems people may experience more than four weeks after first being infected.

Bergtholdt’s husband Dan has been there through the life-changing process.

“I’ve become a lot more sensitive to it. I can see in her eyes when she’s really in pain. Her voice on the phone, I can tell pretty much whether she’s having a good day or not so good day,” he said.

It’s the not-so-good days—that make the unknown timeline of all of this so hard.

“Not knowing what the end game is. If you have some kind of hope there’s going to be a reasonable conclusion. It’s a lot easier to endure I think,” he said.

Bergtholdt said: “It’s depressing. And I’m not a person that gets depressed very easily.”

Researchers like Dr. Ravindra Kohle at AU are studying more than 600 COVID patients in a one-of-a-kind study—tracking them all, over time.

“I think the biggest factor in deciding is the damage—with what is done. Is it reversible, or is it irreversible? I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he said.

In some of the sickest patients, they’ve uncovered a handful of rare gene variants—involved in body processes like inflammation. With more research—it could be a key to understanding why patients like Bergtholdt—are still suffering.

“If its symptoms related to a response, then they will go away with time, but if it’s permanent or irreversible damage we will have to figure out how to repair that damage,” said Kohle.

Researchers and doctors are hopeful.

Dr. Jose Vasquez said: “I think gradually the majority of people will get better and resolve.”

As time passes, they’re seeing more patients improve, and the research is beginning to unlock doors.

“There are some small studies to show if you get a booster, a COVID booster, that improves the long-haul COVID,” he said.

Kohle said: “Our knowledge base is very small, but I think a lot of people are working on it—so hopefully we start solving these puzzles and mysteries one thing at a time.

For patients like Bergtholdt—

“It’s just really hard,” said Bergtholdt.

But researchers are finding the more severe the response to COVID, the more likely the risk for long-haul symptoms. So, researchers say the trend we see now—with fewer people hospitalized for COVID – is promising.

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