NPR’s Scott Simon talks with Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez about how long-term COVID patients are faring two years into the pandemic.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Biden declared the end of the pandemic on “60 Minutes” last Sunday. And while many Americans go about their daily lives without masks or tests, many are still dealing with what’s known as prolonged COVID. dr Monica Verduzco-Gutiérrez is a professor and chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Texas Health San Antonio. She and she treat people with prolonged COVID. Doctor, thank you very much for being with us.
MONICA VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: You were very forceful on Twitter. You referred to President Biden’s comments as, in quotes, “a slap in the face” to millions of people dealing with prolonged COVID. Why did you see it like that?
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Because these people continue to suffer. There have been no promises of support, of continued research, of any treatment. Many of the treatments are only for people who are seriously ill. And that’s wonderful, but now we need treatment and support for people who still have significant difficulties.
SIMON: Well, help us understand what some of the patients you’ve seen are struggling with and where they need support.
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: So some patients have significant and debilitating fatigue beyond what you and I could imagine or, you know, what we lived with previously. And some of them can’t leave home. There’s definitely executive dysfunction: You know what’s called brain fog, but it’s really problems with processing, concentrating, word creation, the ability to get work done. There are patients who have problems with their heart rate and blood pressure when they stand up, and in addition, the development of new chronic diseases that arise from having COVID-19 and prolonged COVID.
SIMON: What kind of treatments are there now?
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Well, our treatment right now is symptom control. We’re just trying to figure out what we can diagnose. Do they have lung disease? We try to, you know, treat them with medications that we have for that. Do they have dysautonomia or POTS? So, you know, there’s a conservative and medical management for that. Fatigue, we just give people right now, you know, rhythm and get them to rest and control and conserve their energy.
SIMON: Does depression also become a problem?
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: So depression becomes a secondary issue. You know, you would, if you’re dealing with a new illness that you weren’t dealing with before, if you realize you’re not getting support, if some people don’t believe you, if even sometimes the medical establishment isn’t supporting you, then people can get depressed. It also goes with some of the inflammation that’s going on in the brain after COVID. A study came out recently and said, you know, there can be early mood disorders, depression, anxiety, but in two years it got better. But the neurological, the cognitive, no.
SIMON: Two years?
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Two years. People are still suffering from the beginning, from March 2020.
SIMON: Where, in your opinion, can the government and health authorities be more supportive at this time?
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: I think that, you know, we really need to start trials for treatments for these patients. I think there are also several bills that are, you know, both in the House and in the Senate that may be there, but are not getting passed, that offer support to patients and support to clinics and research. And those are kind of stuck there.
SIMON: I mean, recognizing that we’ve obviously learned over the centuries that you can’t just snap your fingers and find a completely effective treatment, let alone something that’s like a cure, could we as a society invest more in Find some kind of treatment that could work in the way that vaccines were developed so quickly?
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: There have been post-infectious diseases for a long time and we’ve ignored them, but now we can’t because the number is so large. And I think this is the opportunity to say, let’s call attention to, you know, the people who have been suffering even before the pandemic, who also have COVID-like pictures. 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 you already know that sometimes viral antigens persist in the bodies of people with prolonged COVID? We know that there is an autoimmune phenomenon. Why aren’t we testing autoimmune drugs for the immune system that we already know exist?
SIMÓN: Doctor, how did you find yourself working with long-term COVID patients, a specialty that did not exist two years ago?
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Right. So we saw that there was a huge need, that there was, you know, people were being hugely affected 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 shocks. And I also specialize in brain injury medicine, and it turns out a lot of the symptoms are very similar: fatigue, brain fog, trouble concentrating, dizziness, headaches, inability to return to work. So it’s like what he’s done before, but now in a new patient population. And then the other thing is that I felt: I’m in San Antonio, we have a city with a large majority of minorities, a lot of Latinos here, and it’s a population that I knew would be affected the most. We’ve seen that in COVID-19, so I said we need to start rehabilitating them and address the needs after COVID-19.
SIMÓN: Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutiérrez is a professor and chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at UT Health in San Antonio. Thank you very much for being with us, and good luck to you and your patients.
VERDUZCO-GUTIERREZ: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ROB BURGER’S “DIMINATED CAPACITY”)
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