While everyone is looking forward to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pittsburgh VA clinicians have their eye on a long-term issue with the disease – a health condition known as “long COVID.”
In January, Pittsburgh VA opened a clinic for Veterans who have recovered from the acute stage of COVID but who continue to have debilitating symptoms of the disease.
Ten to 30 percent of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 report new, returning or worsened symptoms known as post-COVID conditions, according to team member Dr. Erika Hoffman. The broad range of lingering symptoms includes sleep loss, heart and lung issues and trouble with mental processes such as thinking, learning, problem-solving and memory.
Team members stand ready to help Veterans. Dr. Anjali Das, front, left; Dr. Erika Hoffman; and Lisa Reinhardt. In back, from left: Christine Matthews, Lynn Baniak, Kimberly Eichhorn, Eric Dykstra, Jonna Morris and Austin Brown.
“Many have multifaceted health issues and worsened quality of life,” said Hoffman.
Each Veteran gets personalized treatment program
Some Veterans have rare symptoms, such as hair loss and profound fatigue after minimal mental or physical effort, said team member Dr. Anjali Das. Because no two patients present the same symptoms of post-COVID, the team provides each Veteran with a personalized treatment program and three-month follow-up.
The clinic’s multidisciplinary team includes physicians, psychologists, nurses, physical therapists, social workers, researchers, and hearing and speech specialists. They take a team approach to treating Veterans, addressing psychological, physical and mental health needs.
Psychologist Austin Brown assesses Veterans for mental health and cognitive symptoms that can overlap and contribute to long-term recovery. Many Veterans with post-COVID conditions need help with the depression, fear, anxiety and even weight gain that can come with a long-term, debilitating illness.
“This assessment helps to ensure that every aspect of the Veteran’s well-being is considered in the treatment recommendations created by the team,” said Brown.
Physical therapy’s role includes helping Veterans who have lung damage from COVID. They can instruct Veterans who are easily winded, for instance, on therapeutic exercises to perform at home.
Social workers help Veterans identify stressors and challenges. They also help Veterans find VA and community resources to help them deal not only with their symptoms, but also with financial concerns, housing and food insecurity.
Many patients did not get or complete vaccinations
Das said the clinic will remain if there is a need but she reiterated the best way to prevent post-COVID conditions is to prevent COVID-19 illness in the first place.
“Many of the patients we have seen did not get or complete their series of COVID vaccinations,” she said.
In addition to clinical care, the team is gathering information on post-COVID conditions for research.
“We plan to create a registry and data repository that will provide a mechanism to store data, support the conduct of future research about long COVID, and foster collaborations with both VA and non-VA facilities, such as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center,” said team member Dr. Lynn Baniak, associate chief nurse for research.
To be seen in the clinic, Veterans should ask their primary care provider for a referral.