Unlocking the mysteries of long COVID

By | March 8, 2021

Meghan O’Rourke writes:

The quest at mount sinai began with a mystery. During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City, Zijian Chen, an endocrinologist, had been appointed medical director of the hospital’s new Center for Post-COVID Care, dedicated both to research and to helping recovering patients “transition from hospital to home,” as Mount Sinai put it. One day last spring, he turned to an online survey of COVID‑19 patients who were more than a month past their initial infection but still experiencing symptoms. Because COVID‑19 was thought to be a two-week respiratory illness, Chen anticipated that he would find only a small number of people who were still sick. That’s not what he saw.

“I looked at the number of patients that were in the database and it was, I think, 1,800 patients,” he told me. “I freaked out a little bit. Oh my God, there’s so many patients telling us that they still have symptoms.” A realization dawned on him: America was not simply struggling to contain a once-in-a-century pandemic, caused by a virus far more dangerous than seasonal influenza. Many patients were, for unknown reasons, not recovering.

“We didn’t expect this from a virus,” he continued. “We expect that with viral infections as a whole, with few exceptions, you get better.” Many patients who spend significant time in an ICU—whether battling an infection or recovering from a stroke—do require further treatment even after they are released, because they suffer from something called post–intensive care syndrome, often characterized by weakness and cognitive problems. But that didn’t explain the group Chen was looking at. Startlingly, most had had mild cases of COVID‑19—they had neither been hospitalized nor developed pneumonia. Before contracting the virus, many had had no known health issues. Yet they were reporting significant ongoing symptoms—“shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, fatigue, and brain fog,” Chen told me.

Chen quickly convened a multidisciplinary group of clinicians. The team began triaging patients with ongoing symptoms, referring them to specialists and teasing apart the causes. There were patients of all ages and backgrounds, with a wide array of problems, from persistent loss of taste and smell to chest pain. Some patients had been seriously ill, and they typically had the lung scarring, or fibrosis, that comes with COVID pneumonia; they were referred to pulmonologists for follow-up care. Others had readily observable heart problems, including myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, and were referred to cardiologists. Still others had blood clots. The extent of the damage COVID‑19 had done to them was highly unusual for a respiratory virus—and deeply alarming. But, Chen told me, “those were actually the luckier patients, because we could target treatment toward that.”

The unlucky remainder—more than 90 percent of the patients the center has seen—was a puzzling group “where we couldn’t see what was wrong,” Chen said. These tended to be the patients who had originally had mild to moderate symptoms. They were overwhelmingly women, even though men are typically hit harder by acute COVID‑19. (Acute COVID‑19 refers to the distinct period of infection during which the immune system fights off the virus; the acute phase can range from mild to severe.) And they tended to be young, between the ages of 20 and 50—not an age group that, doctors had thought, suffered the worst effects of the disease. Most of the patients were white and relatively well-off, raising concern among clinicians that many people of color with ongoing symptoms were not getting the care they needed.

These patients’ tests usually showed nothing obviously the matter with them. “Everything was coming back negative,” says Dayna McCarthy, a rehabilitation-medicine physician and a lead clinician at the center. “So of course Western medicine wants to say, ‘You’re fine.’ ”

But the patients were self-evidently not fine. [Continue reading…]

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