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UW post-COVID clinic treating ‘long-haulers’ sees multifold increase in patients

Aster Mekonen with housecleaning services disinfects her hands after cleaning and disinfecting a room after a patient has been released in the acute care COVID unit at Harborview Medical Center on May 7, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The post-COVID Rehabilitation and Recovery Clinic at Harborview Medical Center has seen a multifold increase in patients needing clinic services through the fall and winter months.

UW Medicine says the spike in patients began at the end of the summer and continued into the winter. Dr. Aaron Bunnell, a UW Medicine rehabilitation specialist, expected to see a steady stream of patients needing therapy post-COVID-19, but didn’t expect this big jump.

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Staff at the center are exploring new treatments for COVID-19 “long-haulers,” which are patients experiencing symptoms months after contracting the virus.

The center opened in May and UW Medicine says about two people per week were seeking out the clinic, but that’s now up to 25 per week being referred to clinic services, as estimated by Bunnell.

“At the end of summer, we were seeing decreased volumes, the pandemic was a little more under control. And now with the second wave that’s coming, we’re seeing a lot more patients,” he said.

The age range for patients is large, from pediatric patients to people in their 70s. Initially, it was thought that young people were mostly spared from COVID-19 impacts and that this was a disease that affected people with comorbidities and older age. While those populations remain at greater risk, Dr. Bunnell says younger people are not completely spared.

This clinic was set up as a post acute respiratory distress syndrome or post-ICU clinic. Dr. Bunnell explains that ICU stays can affect multiple domains, including physical, cognitive, and mental health.

“I think what we’re finding in COVID is it’s not just the ICU patients who are affected in those ways,” Dr. Bunnell said.

“I would say that 10-30% of patients are going to have one of those domains affected at three months,” he added. “What we’re going to know as time goes on is how many people are affected at a year, or two years, or five years.”

Dr. Bunnell thinks there will be more infections and more long-haulers needing treatment.

“I think we’re going to have a lot more infections, and even if it’s only 5% of the infections that have long-term effects, it’s still a massive public health issue,” he said.

“My hope is that most people recover fully but we may be dealing with a group of patients who has more long-term effect,” Bunnell said. “Not just three months, but a year, or five years, or indefinite effects. And we really want to be here to serve … and help rebuild life in whatever way we can for those patients.”

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There are two ways to be referred to the Post-COVID Rehabilitation and Recovery Clinic: Your doctor can provide a referral, or you can contact the UW Medicine Contact Center at 206-520-5000 and ask to be seen with the COVID-19 clinic out of Rehab Medicine. There is also a telemedicine option.

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