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Long COVID: ‘Is this going to be my new normal?’

U of A researchers are partnering to help improve life for Canadians dealing with lingering symptoms of COVID-19.
Dealing with long COVID is new territory. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

In the early hours of Christmas morning, Lance Hoddinott was pulled from restless sleep with a raging temperature.

“I knew instantly what it was,” said Hoddinott. “My Christmas present this year was COVID-19.”

Although he followed safety guidelines to the letter, Hoddinott contracted the disease that ultimately sent him to hospital on New Year’s Eve as an unrelenting fever morphed into a shortness of breath. After four days on oxygen, Hoddinott began to improve, and after a week he was sent home.

Hoddinott is recovering — but after eight months and counting, some symptoms continue to linger, including fatigue and brain fog.

“Normally I read between 30 and 60 books a year. This year I’ve only read three because I can’t concentrate anymore,” he said. “The question that came to my mind was, ‘Is this going to be my new normal?’”

There is a subsection of people who have recovered from COVID-19 but, like Hoddinott, are left dealing with a list of afflictions, said Doug Gross, professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and director of the Rehabilitation Research Centre at the University of Alberta (U of A). Now, a team led by Gross has received $152,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to explore rehabilitation needs and access to services for people with long COVID.

“The old-fashioned techniques of retraining and building muscles have been tried, and quite often they fail — in fact, a little bit of exercise can sometimes lead to setbacks. We are learning pacing and strategies for conserving energy may be more effective," said Gross.

What researchers know about this post-viral struggle is that about 10 per cent of people who get COVID-19 battle any number of symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, aches, an inability to concentrate, anxiety or depression for 12 weeks or longer. 

Part of this study will determine what access patients have to care, and how best to help overcome those barriers. The study will involve rehabilitation researchers from the U of A and across Canada, in collaboration with respiratory specialists in Edmonton and Calgary.

Early work on rehabilitation

In the early months of 2020, when the entire world was focused on the acute management of COVID-19, physical therapy professor Geoff Bostick said survivors who were clear of the disease but remained in the clutches of its symptoms were the ones who generated the push to get the condition recognized even when the medical community was doubtful.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a condition that has been defined and labelled by the people who are affected by it rather than by the medical community, and now the medical community is trying to catch up,” he said.

Putting patients on the path to full recovery

Earlier this year, the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine was approached by physiotherapists at the Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton who were concerned there was no clear pathway for COVID-19 patients to go from hospital to rehabilitation.

Part of the problem, said Bostick, are the multiple branches of rehabilitation each patient may need to access. For instance, physiotherapy would be involved to help with strength and endurance and to help retain proper breathing; occupational therapy would be needed to help with depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances; and speech therapy would be necessary in cases where speech has become impaired.

“I think there’s a lot of people who need support trying to navigate their disability in a context where there’s not a lot known about it or a lot of resources available,” said Bostick.

“Our clinic prides itself on trying to meet gaps in the community. Obviously this is a huge gap, so we’re just really keen to help but need to be cautious as well.”