SALT LAKE CITY — A new University of Utah health clinic will be the first of its kind in the area to focus on treating COVID-19 "long-haulers," the university announced Thursday.
"Long-haulers" are people who experience long-term symptoms from COVID-19, sometimes months after initially being diagnosed with the disease. The U.'s Comprehensive COVID-19 Long-Hauler Clinic will treat adults suffering from chronic COVID-19.
The clinic will both treat patients suffering from long-hauler COVID-19 and work with the patients to research the long-lasting effects of the disease, doctors said. Researchers hope to learn more about the long-term symptoms of the disease and be able to treat it more effectively as patients continue to suffer from COVID-19 long after the pandemic ends.
"Even after this pandemic has been beaten, this disease will continue to plague us," said Dr. John Inadomi, chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Utah.
Call centers for the clinic are now open to help people make appointments at the clinic. It will be the first clinic of its kind in Utah. The closest similar clinics are in Colorado and New Mexico, U. officials said.
People who want to schedule appointments at the clinic or want more information can call 801-213-0884. Patients will be seen in a combination of virtual visits and in-patient appointments.
Long-haulers have reported hundreds of chronic, lasting COVID-19 symptoms, including fatigue, brain fog, loss of taste and smell, shortness of breath and cardiovascular symptoms such as low or abnormal blood pressure, said Dr. Jeanette Brown, a U. pulmonologist and medical director of University of Utah Health's COVID-19 Long-Hauler Clinic.
Doctors from the U.'s cardiology, ear, nose and throat, dermatology, nephrology, neurology, pulmonary and infectious diseases departments will be collaborating with the clinic to treat the various conditions, Brown said.
"It takes a village to take care of folks because COVID affects so many different organ systems," she added.
Outside of the physical symptoms, the clinic will seek to help patients deal with other ways COVID-19 is affecting their lives, Brown said. Social workers and support groups will also be available for clinic patients.
"There will be lots of areas of investigation going forward," she said.
Doctors and hospital board members recognized that there was a need to study the long-term effects of the disease, Inadomi said.
Patients have so far been "altruistic," and many have a desire to participate in the research that will help the medical community better understand the disease, Brown said.
"It's an opportunity and a challenge that we're excited to take on here," Brown said.
Kids and long COVID-19
The U.'s clinic will only treat adults, Brown said. But Primary Children's Hospital on campus is working to set up a similar clinic soon that will treat kids suffering from long-term COVID-19, she added.
Though children aren't at high risk for hospitalization or death from COVID-19, they are still at risk for some effects of the disease.
"Let's not forget the 'new' vulnerable — our kids under the age of 12 years who can't yet get vaccinated. They still need the protection with the basic measures we have been practicing for the past year," Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department and former Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist, said in a May 20 tweet.
We are doing better - more individuals vaccinated every day. But, let's not forget the "new" vulnerable — our kids under the age of 12 years who can't yet get vaccinated. They still need the protection with the basic measures we have been practicing for the past year. https://t.co/UDe37U9Eqr— Dr. Angela Dunn (@DrAngelaCDunn) May 20, 2021
The data and information around how kids are affected by long COVID-19 are very limited, according to Dr. Ngan Truong, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah who also works at Primary Children's Hospital.
"I think there's so much that we don't know at this point," she said in a recent interview with KSL.com. "I'm hoping that in the coming months we will know more, there's a definite need."
Long COVID-19 symptoms in kids have mirrored those of adults — kids have reported fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and heart racing as symptoms several months after being initially diagnosed with COVID-19, Truong said. But there's no indication that those long-term symptoms are universal across every age group, and it's hard to determine what symptoms young children might be feeling, because they might not be able to express them, she added.
One Italian study of about 120 children found that about half the children had a lingering COVID-19 symptom 60 days after their initial diagnosis, according to Truong. And about 40% of the kids surveyed in the study reported having a symptom that was still affecting their lifestyle three months after being diagnosed.
"Those are some pretty big numbers," Truong said.
"Prevention is our best friend at this point."
–Dr. Ngan Truong, University of Utah associate professor of pediatrics
The study had some potential flaws, though, she said. Selection bias, where kids who are experiencing symptoms are more likely to participate in a study, may have factored in to the research. And with just 120 kids surveyed, the study wasn't wide-ranging enough to get an accurate assessment of how children are really being affected by the long-term disease, Truong added.
Research involving large swaths of children is needed to learn more about the disease and how common it really is in children, she said. The denominator in the equation of how many kids have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and are being affected by the disease isn't known. It's possible that many kids who have had the disease were never tested, because they're often asymptomatic.
Luckily, the National Institutes of Health is interested in studying long COVID-19, and the agency's goal is to study thousands of kids and adults who are suffering from long-term effects of the disease, according to Truong.
"I know that there is a lot of interest in better understanding long COVID, the symptoms, the incidence, on a national level," she said.
For now, it's still important to practice good hygiene measures such as washing hands frequently in order to protect kids who aren't able to be vaccinated against COVID-19. It could be well into 2022 by the time the vaccine is made available for children under 12 years old.
"Prevention is our best friend at this point," Truong said.