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Hardest hit ‘long’ COVID-19 patients may be those who least expect it

New program announced as state reports highest ever death toll

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A child is tested for COVID-19 in Bountiful, Utah.

A child is tested for COVID-19 in Bountiful on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

There are many chronic symptoms thatUtah’s COVID-19 “long-haulers” can continue to suffer from months after initially becoming infected, Intermountain Healthcare doctors said Monday, warning the hardest hit patients may be those who least expect it.

“Many of these patients aren’t even hospitalized, do not even have bad infections but yet they have ongoing symptoms,” Dr. Dixie Harris told reporters during a virtual news conference to announce a new Intermountain Healthcare program aimed at connecting those who’ve had symptoms for at least three months with specialists.

Harris, a pulmonologist who treats COVID-19 patients at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, said the lingering symptoms she sees most often in patients with what’s known as long COVID-19 are “profound fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, coughing, heart racing and there’s many, many other symptoms.”

The effort by the region’s largest health care provider to help patients struggling with lingering effects from the virus comes as the Utah Department of Health is reporting a record 39 additional deaths in the state from COVID-19 since Friday, including 23 that occurred before Jan. 14, along with 3,128 new cases.

“These deaths are a stark, sad reminder of the human toll COVID-19 continues to take in our communities. Behind each number is a family mourning the loss of a loved one and we share in their grief,” state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said in a statement, urging Utahns to get vaccinated and boosted against the virus.

Utah’s COVID-19 death toll was at 4,300 as of Wednesday.

Hudachko said the most deaths previously reported in a single day was 33 on Jan. 24, a total that also included a weekend. Last Tuesday, 32 deaths were reported but cases have been declining, in part because most Utahns with symptoms have been encouraged to skip crowded testing sites.

Even as Utah may have be seeing the peak of the most recent COVID-19 surge, driven by the incredibly contagious omicron variant, Harris and Dr. Ellie Hirshberg, another critical care physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said long COVID-19occurs in as many as half of all acute virus cases and appears to target the young and fit.

“What I have personally seen is a lot of healthy people, who don’t have preexisting conditions, a lot of athletes, a lot of fully working individuals,” Hirshberg said, whose lingering symptoms have put a stop to their activities. Yet at the same time, she said many of her COVID-19 patients sick enough to be hospitalized are recovering faster.

Harris, too, said her long COVID-19 patients, typically young and female, don’t have risk factors like diabetes or heart disease associated with severe cases of the virus.

“They never got very sick with COVID but yet they had fevers, chills, headaches, the whole works,” she said, symptoms that continued long beyond the few days or up to two weeks it usually takes coronavirus patients to start feeling better.

“The thing I tell patients is to really listen to their body. It’s not a typical cold, you have to listen to your body, listen to how your body feels with activity. Even just patients walking across the room, they can become short of breath and their heart can start racing,” Harris said.

When patients first show up for help, she said “the most important thing I do at the visit is validate that they don’t feel back to normal.” There is a lot of anxiety and depression among long COVID-19 patients, Harris said, adding they are suffering from a disease the medical community is still trying to understand.

Hirshberg said frustration is “the most overwhelming sentiment of our patients” because “their symptoms are progressing or sustained, despite all their best efforts at trying to heal.” But with treatment, she said they can recover.

“We’ve actually been able to see people improve over time so my message to the community is, it will get better. It just takes a long time,” Hirschberg said. She said patients can call Intermountain Healthcare’s new navigator program at 801-408-5888, to get in to see specialists who can best treat their issues sooner.

Long COVID-19 isn’t something people typicallyworry aboutwhen it comes to the virus unless, Harris said, someone they know has symptoms that just won’t go away. But the possibility of dealing with lingering issues is a good reason for even the healthiest Utahns to take steps to avoid getting the virus, she said.

Getting vaccinated against the coronavirus “markedly” lowers to the risk of developing long COVID-19, Harris said, rather than relying onimmunityfrom getting infected. Hirshberg said she has yet to see a patient with long COVID-19 who was vaccinated before initially becoming infected.

Both doctors said self-care is key for Utahns who continue to deal with the aftermath of the virus for months or even years.

“Self compassion is something I think I really encourage with our patients,“ Hirshberg said. “They have to be compassionate with themselves and recognize that it takes time.”