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Two years into the pandemic, long COVID patients are suffering

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden declared the pandemic over on "60 Minutes" last Sunday. And while many Americans are going around in their everyday lives without masks or tests, many still contend with what's become known as long COVID. Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez is professor and chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at University of Texas Health San Antonio. And she treats people with long COVID. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

MONICA VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You were very blunt on Twitter. You referred to President Biden's comments as, quote, "a slap in the face" to millions dealing with long COVID. Why did you see it that way?

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Because these people still are suffering. There's not been the promises of support, of continued research, of any treatments. A lot of the treatments are just for people who are acutely ill. And that's wonderful, but now we need for the - treatments and support for the people who are still struggling significantly.

SIMON: Well, help us understand what some patients you've seen are struggling with and where they need support.

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: So some patients are having significant, debilitating fatigue beyond what you and I could imagine or, you know, previously live with. And some of them are unable to get out of the home. There's definitely the executive dysfunction - you know, what's nicely called brain fog, but really is issues with processing, concentrating, coming up with words, being able to do work. There's patients that have issues with their heart rate and their blood pressures when they stand up, and plus, development of new chronic diseases that is coming out of having COVID-19 and long COVID.

SIMON: What kind of treatments exist now?

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Well, our treatment right now is symptom management. We just try to figure out what we can diagnose. Do they have lung disease? We try to, you know, treat them with medications we have for that. Do they have dysautonomia or POTS? Then, you know, there's both conservative and medical management for that. The fatigue, we just give people right now, you know, pacing and having them rest and kind of monitor and conserve their energy.

SIMON: Depression becomes an issue, too?

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: So depression becomes a secondary issue. You know, you would - if you're faced with a new illness that you weren't dealing with before, if you're realizing you're not getting support, if some people may not believe you, if even sometimes the medical establishment isn't supporting you, then people can become depressed. It also goes with some of the inflammation that's happening in the brain after COVID. One study had recently came out and said, you know, there may be early on mood disorders, depression, anxiety, but over two years that got better. But the neurologic, the cognitive stuff did not.

SIMON: Two years?

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Two years. People are still suffering from the beginning, from March 2020.

SIMON: Where, in your judgment, can the government and health care authorities be most supportive right now?

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: I think, you know, we really need to start trials for treatments for these patients. I think also there are multiple bills that are, you know, both in the House and the Senate that may be out there, but they're not being pushed through, that offer both support for patients and support for clinics and for research. And those are just kind of stalled there.

SIMON: I mean, recognizing that we have obviously learned over centuries that you just can't snap your fingers and come up with a wholly effective treatment, much less anything that's like a cure, could we, as a society, invest more in finding some kind of treatments that could work in the way that vaccines were so quickly developed?

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: There's been post-infectious diseases for a long time, and we've kind of ignored them, but now we cannot 'cause the number is so huge. And I think that this is the opportunity to say, let's bring attention to, you know, the people who've been suffering even before the pandemic, who also have similar types of pictures as long COVID. And, you know, there are some things that are already available. We have Paxlovid. We have remdesivir. We have these antivirals. Why aren't we doing antiviral trials, especially when they already know there's sometimes persistence of the viral antigens in people's bodies with long COVID? We know there's an autoimmune phenomenon. Why aren't we trying autoimmune medications for the immune system that we already know exist?

SIMON: Doctor, how did you find yourself working with long COVID patients, a specialty that did not exist two years ago?

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Right. So we saw that there was a big need, that there was - you know, people were being hugely impacted by COVID-19. And I said as a rehabilitation specialist, this is our time to come in and shine and be able to take care of people with these, you know, terrible impacts. And I'm also - specialize in brain injury medicine, and it happens to be a lot of the symptoms are very similar - fatigue, brain fog, concentration issues, dizziness, headaches, inability to go back to work. So it's kind of what I had done before, but now in a new population of patients. And then the other thing is I felt like - I'm in San Antonio, we have a large majority minority city, a lot of Latinos here, and it's a population that I knew was going to be impacted more. We've seen that in COVID-19, so I said we need to start rehabilitating them and addressing the needs after COVID-19.

SIMON: Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez is a professor and chair at the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at UT Health in San Antonio. Thank you so much for being with us, and good luck to you and your patients.

VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROB BURGER'S "DIMINISHED CAPACITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.