Questions surrounding ‘Long COVID’ continue to puzzle local researchers

Coronavirus

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — While science and medicine have learned a lot about COVID-19, “long COVID” has been tougher puzzle to solve.

“No two people are alike,” said Dr. Fen Lei Chang, the medical director of the Parkview Post COVID Clinic, the only one in northeast Indiana. Since it opened in May more than 300 patients have sought help at the clinic for long term COVID symptoms.

The multiple names – post COVID, long COVID, or long-haulers COVID – are nowhere close to the multiple symptoms: brain fog, muscle weakness, fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, loss of taste and smell – just for starters.

“It’s a billion different things,” added Britney Schwartz, the clinic’s Neuroscience RN Care Advisor.

Local healthcare worker Morgan Roose, 23, contracted COVID-19 in 2020 before a vaccine was available. COVID-19 left her with a fever and extreme fatigue, but she recovered in about 14 days.

Weeks later she developed brain fog, loss of taste and smell, tingling in her head and migraine headaches. At the time, the doctors she worked with told her to go home and rest. After she suffered a seizure at work, she began treatment at the Post COVID Clinic, where she is seen by a neurologist, cardiologist and several therapists.

When asked to ponder how a respiratory virus could cause so much havoc to the rest of her body, Roose paused. “I don’t have a guess,” she said. “I wish I knew the answer.”

So does Dr. Chang.

For months, he has coordinated researchers at the Parkview Mirro Center for Research & Innovation and a team at Indiana University Fort Wayne, where he is the director of the IU School of Medicine.

The local teams search for new and better treatments of long COVID as others try to discover the cause.

Those results have been elusive. The disease strikes equally across gender, age, race or the severity of a patient’s original bout with COVID-19.

“Pretty much everyone get can get it,” Dr. Chang explained.

The National Institute of Health will spend $470 million to find the answer. Their researchers offered four theories to NPR earlier this year:

  • The COVID-19 virus never left the body
  • The immune system doesn’t shut off
  • The immune system attacks itself
  • Other problem viruses “wake up”

Schwartz leaned toward the last explanation, as long COVID seems to present symptoms decades before a person might otherwise see them.

“Sometimes viruses or sickness or something major like trauma happens to the body and actually triggers that autonomic disorder,” she theorized. “It’s probably been there. It’s just been activated through this virus.”

The autonomic nerves control unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, body temperature and more. It would explain why Roose often becomes light-headed when she stands.

The best theory? Dr. Chang said they don’t have one.

“No, we don’t,” he laughed with a touch of frustration. “And we don’t have a specific treatment. What’s so sad is that it is a hard condition to take care of.”

Hard but not impossible.

“Most people get better,” Dr. Chang added. “It’s hard to tell how much of that gets better on its own. But one thing we do know is that we can treat the symptoms.”

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