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University of Washington Opens Clinic To Treat COVID-19 'Long-Haulers'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The coronavirus arrived in the U.S. about a year ago. Some of the people who got sick early on with COVID-19 still suffer. Often, these long-haulers, as they're called, have had trouble finding treatment for their lingering symptoms. Eilis O'Neill of member station KUOW went to one Seattle clinic trying to remedy that.

EILIS O'NEILL, BYLINE: Forty-seven-year-old Donna Lawson got COVID back in March, at the very beginning of the pandemic. At one point, she was hospitalized for three days with low blood oxygen. And when she got home, she didn't get better.

DONNA LAWSON: My legs feel like jello all the time - very, very weak. On really bad days and bad times, I'm trudging through concrete, is what it feels like.

O'NEILL: Sitting in her backyard, Lawson says she can't concentrate. She's tired all the time and no longer has the energy to volunteer at her daughter's school. She says, on a good day, she's 80% of her old self for a few hours. On other days, she can't get out of bed.

LAWSON: Who knows if I'll be myself again? I really love helping people, and I love spreading joy. It's really hard to do that when you don't feel joy.

O'NEILL: A recent University of Washington study suggests that as many as 30% of COVID patients still have symptoms nine months after their diagnosis. They have anything from fatigue and shortness of breath to trouble sleeping or concentrating to depression or anxiety. Another study showed these lasting symptoms are more prevalent in women than in men. Many long-haulers like Lawson have struggled to find care because their disease isn't fully understood. That's why the University of Washington's Harborview Medical Center has opened a clinic for COVID long-haulers.

AARON BUNNELL: There he is.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How are you, sir?

BUNNELL: I've been good. How are you?

O'NEILL: The clinic is part medical office, part gym, with treadmills, parallel bars and other equipment to help patients build back strength and the ability to walk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thanks to you, I'm still here.

BUNNELL: Well, you're looking more handsome every day.

O'NEILL: Aaron Bunnell is a rehab physician. At the beginning of the pandemic, he treated COVID patients after they got out of the ICU. Eventually, that work became a clinic just for long-haulers.

BUNNELL: It's not just the patients that have been hospitalized and who were very sick that are having long-term symptoms. We're seeing this even in patients who may have been sick at home but now, three months later, are still struggling.

O'NEILL: Bunnell says researchers are still trying to figure out exactly what causes all these symptoms. Long-haulers' immune systems could still be in overdrive, or maybe their brains are still suffering from being deprived of oxygen.

BUNNELL: Some of the basic science is still pending, and that will be helpful for guiding treatments.

O'NEILL: A few clinics like this have opened up across the country. So far, this is the only one in the Pacific Northwest. One person who's currently in the clinic's care is 61-year-old Susan Krikac. She came down with COVID in July. Krikac says there were nights when she could hardly breathe and thought she might die. By September, she could breathe again, but she started having stroke-like symptoms.

SUSAN KRIKAC: I was talking on the phone to a girlfriend when I started talking what I would call jibber-jabber. I wasn't making sense. And she said, I think you should put the phone down and call 911.

O'NEILL: Krikac says after that, she started cycling in and out of the ER and looking for specialists who could help her with her memory loss, lack of concentration and depression.

KRIKAC: My personality has definitely changed. I don't laugh. My coworkers said that they miss my sense of humor. I miss my sense of humor.

O'NEILL: Eventually, Krikac found Harborview's post-COVID clinic, where finally someone is coordinating her care. Dr. Bunnell says he hopes that integrated approach will help his patients return to something approaching normal.

BUNNELL: We see that a lot in our critical illness survivors that, yeah, their heart is still beating and they're breathing, but everything that they valued and was meaningful in their life is now lost.

O'NEILL: Bunnell says the goal is to make sure long-haulers get back as much life as possible. For NPR News, I'm Eilis O'Neill in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE LAURA VEIRS SONG, "JULY FLAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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