I-TEAM: Local study unlocks some mysteries about ‘long COVID’

Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 7:44 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Our I-TEAM has an update to our exclusive look inside one of the largest COVID studies happening in the country.

Researchers here at the Medical College of Georgia have their first results from their first 200 patients, and doctors say they’re already seeing a clear pattern.

This study is looking at the longer-lasting effects of COVID, and so far, the number one symptom is fatigue with 68.5% of study participants reporting that symptom. A close second is headaches at 66.5%.

Next in line are problems with smell reported by 54.5% of patients and taste reported by 54% of patients.

Almost half of the patients (47%) met the criteria for mild cognitive impairment. A startling 32% of patients have memory problems, and 30% had impaired vocabulary.

But this study is about more than numbers.

It’s about patients like Sarah Moore.


We first introduced you to our Assistant News Director here at News 12 last November when she went from covering COVID stories to becoming part of one.

Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia are studying Sarah as part of their Neurological and Molecular Prospective Cohort Study in Georgia, or CONGA for short.

Sarah invited our cameras to document all of it.

Since then, for her, it’s been a year of “one mores.” The Moores had one more wedding. They finally felt safe enough to have the big celebration they’d been postponing in the pandemic.

Then six months later, Sarah had one more round of COVID. “The first time was like nothing. I had no idea I had it. The second time, I felt it. I felt terrible.”

Like most others in the study, Sarah says fatigue has stayed with her. Initial results show almost 70% of patients also report feeling exhausted months after they recovered.

“I’m 34. I shouldn’t feel lethargic. I got enough sleep last night,” Sarah said. “I feel like I’m checking all the boxes. I should feel motivated and ready to do things. And it’s just…I’m just tired. I’m just tired.”

Dr. Elizabeth Rutkowski is one of the study’s investigators. She says Sarah is actually one of the lucky ones. “We’re starting to see our first round of one-year follow up patients, and a lot of them are still very, very profoundly disabled by this.”

So far, 47% of patients fall within the mild cognitive impairment range which might not sound serious, but it can be devastating.

“Patients sometimes have to either quit their jobs, or they actually get fired from their jobs, because they cannot handle that kind of cognitive load and their processing is so slow. They’re speaking so slow, and they can’t multitask as well,” explains Dr. Rutkowski. “And those are a lot of the hallmarks that we see in the specific Long-COVID population.”

Other patients continue to struggle with problems with taste and smell.

Sarah hadn’t really noticed any problems until she had to put it to the test. She still doesn’t know her results from her test strips last year. She’ll need to test them again this year.

Dr. Rutkowski says patients who lose their sense of taste and smell find that when they do return, things can smell and taste unpleasant.

Dr. Rutkowski. “Some stay in the complete absence, while others are still kind of lingering on even a year afterward with abnormal perception.

Meredith Anderson: “That’s a long time. Is that true with other viruses, too, that you’ve seen? Or is this unique to COVID, the longevity of these symptoms afterward?”

Dr. Rutkowski: “It’s definitely unique to COVID.”

This is why researchers say they wanted to give the taste and smell tests, as well as some other neurological tests, unique treatment.

Most studies rely on questionnaires where patients self-report symptoms. “Normally, we take those at face value,” Dr. Rutkowski explained. “If you have smell or taste loss or brain fog, check. You have it.”

But Dr. Rutkowski and her team are measuring those things through a series of seemingly random but carefully thought-out tests.

Everything they do has a purpose.

Meredith Anderson: “Has there been anything that has just totally surprised you?”

Dr. Rutkowski: “I think the biggest thing was just that patient’s subjective complaints don’t always line up with the objective tests and data.”

This brings us back to Sarah, who has just learned a third of patients in her study so far, have shown impaired vocabulary. “It’s so funny that you say that because this just happened last week. I was talking to my husband about a friend of ours and I could not pull we were talking about something, and I could not pull the name. And I couldn’t pull the word of whatever we were talking about in my head. And I was a little embarrassed, so I was trying to search my phone.”

That’s something Sarah might never have linked to COVID. So, this study is at the very least making her think.

The hope is it might make you think, too.

“So, what I tell my patients in my study is that, you know, you’re not crazy,” Dr. Rutkowski said. “You’re not alone.”

Researchers are learning more about COVID every single day, and the more they know, the better off we all are.

“Everybody in the world knows what COVID is,” explained Sarah. “And I’m maybe a little tiny baby part of helping us learn a little bit more about it. So that’s cool.”

Sarah’s next appointment is in October, and she’s really interested to see if that second time with COVID affects her test results. There are three more years left in this five-year study, so there is lots more to learn.

The I-TEAM will keep you posted.

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