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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

W.Va. Researchers Conducting 4-Year Study On Long COVID-19

A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Radoslav Zilinsky
Getty Images
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The explosive omicron surge infected millions of Americans. As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummet, West Virginia researchers continue to study the after effects of COVID-19.

Long COVID-19 can cause a wide range of symptoms and even lasting damage to the heart, brain and kidneys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Different studies say anywhere between 10  to 50 percent of people who caught the virus will experience post infection symptoms.

“It was very clear pretty quickly that folks were having symptoms that persisted, or were even new, long after their acute infection had resolved,” Dr. Sally Hodder said. She is the director of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Institute.

Sally Hodder (1).jpeg
Photo courtesy of West Virginia University
Dr. Sally Hodder is director of the Institute and associate vice president for clinical and translational science at WVU.

Researchers from WVCTSI are leading 11 states in a national study on post-acute COVID-19 illnesses. These researchers come from Marshall University, West Virginia University, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, Charleston Area Medical Center and federal health agencies.

The National Institutes of Health is setting aside tens of millions of dollars for the RECOVER project. It will track about 17,000 participants over the course of four years.

Finding answers to her own chronic ailments is why Morgantown resident Heather Yates is participating in the study.

“I would have signed anything if it meant finding a cure or a treatment to make this stop,” Yates said.

In fall of 2020, Yates caught the coronavirus, and soon after developed unexplainable ailments: fatigue, poor digestion, brain fog and migraines.

“Besides those debilitating headaches, I had terrible, intense pain from the base of my skull all down along my spine. Extremely painful, couldn't sleep,” Yates said.

Outside of specialty clinics, doctors have difficulty treating and diagnosing these symptoms. Yates remembers going back and forth with several doctors.

“My tests would all come back negative, and everything's fine. But I was clearly not fine, and I was really sick,” Yates said.

The uncertainty doctors face can even lead them to dismiss long-haul patients like Yates.

“And I met with this [cardiologist]. It wasn't even five minutes and he told me I needed to see a psychiatrist, not him," Yates said. “I experienced, like a lot of other long-haulers, a lot of gaslighting.”

Yates has since found other doctors dedicated to figuring out her underlying issues, though it's no easy task. She’s taking medications and therapies that ease her symptoms.

Hodder says the study hopes to determine how exactly the virus’s effects are able to linger, which could lead to better diagnoses and treatments for people like Yates.

There are three theories on how the coronavirus can continue to affect patients. No. 1, that there are remnants of the virus that continue to cause problems. No. 2, that the virus creates antibodies that end up harming the patient. No.3 , that the infection creates a source of inflammation.

“I don't think that there's any reason to think it just has to be one. There may be all of those occurring, or one,” Hodder said.

Modern medicine already treats viral infections and inflammation very differently. Hodder said knowing what the root cause of post-acute COVID-19 could lead to the best possible treatments.

“Hopefully, it will serve as a platform to have clinical trials and start to test whether some of the therapies that may address the cause of long COVID in fact work,” Hodder said.

Researchers are hoping to get the widest range of study participants: young and old, pregnant women, rural and urban, and all races. Even people who have never had COVID-19 will be part of the study.

“If this pandemic continues, a lot of those individuals who may not have had COVID, at this point, will get COVID, and that will really provide blood samples from before COVID and after COVID, and look at differences,” Hodder said.

Hodder said participants' blood samples will be made available to researchers across the globe for many years to come. The Mayo Clinic will maintain these blood samples.

“So it's not just sending the samples to the Mayo Clinic, and then only the Mayo Clinic investigators look at that. It's really to develop a national resource to really look at questions as they come up,” Hodder said.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.

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