More than 75 per cent of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital reported abnormal symptoms three months later

Jaclyn Robinson was a healthy, active, relatively young full-time nurse before she contracted COVID-19 on March 18, just a week after the global pandemic was declared.

She was likely infected by her husband, Kirk, although they never found out how he caught it. Both were treating themselves at home for the first week until her symptoms drastically worsened and Kirk called an ambulance for her.

“I couldn’t get through a sentence without gasping,” she said. “I remember feeling that I had access to about 20 per cent of my lungs. I was so dizzy, I couldn’t stand up.”

About 12 hours after arriving in emergency, she was transferred to ICU, where she spent the next seven days on a ventilator in a medically induced coma, with no human contact aside from periodic visits by doctors and nurses heavily encased in PPE.

“There were no smiles, no touch, no interaction. I was completely disoriented and I couldn’t move,” she said. “Both of my lungs collapsed and I had COVID pneumonia and bacterial pneumonia.” Other organs such as her heart and liver were affected.

She has only “short and scary” flashbacks of memory, of “being restrained and choking on a tube.”

“It was the most traumatic experience of my life,” said Robinson, 42, who lost 15 lbs. and most of her muscle strength during her two-week hospital stay, during which she was separated from Kirk and their three daughters, Ellie, 16, and fraternal twins Charlotte and Mia, both 12.

She was told she would need one week to recover for each day she was on the ventilator.

Seven months later, she is back at work and on the mend, but she continues to suffer the consequences of COVID-19. She still can’t climb stairs without complete exhaustion and she suffers from low energy.

Robinson is among the former COVID-19 patients who continue to suffer medical and mental health consequences for weeks and months after no longer testing positive for the virus.

A UBC study following a cohort of 78 former COVID-19 patients, including Robinson, has found more than 75 per cent continue to experience significant symptoms, including half with irreversible lung scarring.

When Robinson got home she “couldn’t lift a teacup” and every breath she took hurt. “It feels like I was wearing a tight vest” and the chest pain sent her back to the ER a week after returning home because she feared a blood clot.

She continued to get care but, “Every answer to my questions was ‘We don’t know yet,’” she said.

She was grateful to be referred to the UBC clinic conducting the study because she wanted to ensure she got the best care from doctors up on the latest treatments for ex-COVID patients. She willingly took part in the study and is a patient liaison, in the hopes she can help doctors understand the disease and others might not have to go through what she went through.

The study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, found 76 per cent of patients hospitalized with COVID self-reported abnormal symptoms three months after they were infected, and one-third reported “at least moderate impairment in major dimensions of quality of life,” the journal posted online about the study.

“I was surprised at the time we first saw these results, but I was less surprised based on what I’m seeing elsewhere” about lingering health effects from COVID infections, said study co-author, UBC professor Christopher Carlsten, a respirologist.

Another study in France, released last week, found two-thirds of patients who had a mild-to-moderate case of COVID-19 reported symptoms 60 days after falling ill and more than one-third still felt sick or in a worse condition than when their infection began.

Prolonged symptoms were more likely among patients aged 40 to 60 years and those hospitalized, according to staff at Tours University Hospital, who followed 150 non-critical patients from March to June.

And the U.K.-based COVID Symptom Study that analyzes data from 4.3 million participants who regularly report on their health using an app, suggests most people recover from COVID-19 within two weeks, but 10 per cent may still have symptoms after three weeks and some may suffer for months.

It shows that for more than three weeks after first reporting symptoms, some people continue to experience fatigue, headache, cough, loss of smell, sore throat, delirium and chest pain. It also said the virus may cause damage to internal organs, resulting in long-term or potentially permanent health problems.

And it said there is little information or support for people with long-term COVID-19 and more data is needed to understand the long-term effects of the disease.

Carlsten said about 50 per cent of patients reported shortness of breath and sleep abnormalities and a significant number also reported differences in “quality of life,” in UBC clinic’s self-reporting questionnaire that is a standard, accepted method of monitoring patients’ symptoms.

Lingering effects of the virus are “indisputable” because “we believe strongly that in the general healthy population, 50 per cent of individuals wouldn’t report shortness of breath,” for instance, he said.

Carlsten said those who continued to experience differences in their functionality, physical, mental and social wellbeing in the months after included those with and without co-morbidities.

And in a second study, which has been virtually accepted for publication, showed 83 per cent of these same individuals had CT scans that showed inflammation of the lung called “ground glass,” one that may resolve itself and 65 per cent showed lung scarring, which is generally considered irreversible.

And the oxygen processing ability was compromised in 52 per cent of the patients.

Carlsten said he planned to test the same people at six, 12, 18 and 24 months. And the clinic, which originally was going to focus on respiratory health and treatment has been expanded to include neurology, rehab, psychology and psychiatry because of the variety of different symptoms.

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