Alberta physiotherapists inundated with long-haul COVID patients

Two Alberta physiotherapists are seeing an influx of long COVID patients in their practices.

'We are talking about tens of thousands of people in Alberta potentially being disabled for a long time'

Two Alberta physiotherapists say they are seeing younger, predominantly female long COVID patients. (Submitted by Jessica DeMars)

Some Alberta physiotherapists are hiring additional staff to deal with a wave of COVID-19 long-haulers, an issue they expect to worsen as the province records its highest case counts of the pandemic. 

Jessica DeMars is a respiratory physiotherapist with Breathe Well Physio in Calgary, and she said around 80 percent of her patients are what's been termed "long COVID" patients — people with enduring and debilitating symptoms linked to a COVID-19 infection. 

Breathe Well Physio had to bolster their staff ranks to accommodate the increase in patients, a trend that dates back to last summer. 

"We were getting some patients that were referred for shortness of breath issues that we could trace back to a viral illness in March, but most of them at that time hadn't qualified for any testing because it was still really early," she said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active on Tuesday.

"All of the symptoms were in line with COVID, and we started realizing that, OK, this is interesting." 

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Researchers estimate about 10 per cent of people who contract COVID-19 will develop long-haul symptoms — beyond three weeks — ranging from fatigue to heart palpitations. 

DeMars was prepared for an increase in COVID patients who had been in intensive care, but she started to notice an influx of people with ongoing symptoms who had not been hospitalized. 

Christy Pederson, an Edmonton physiotherapist, is also seeing a rise. She sees similarities between recovering cancer patients and long COVID patients. 

"We're doing a lot of very similar treatment methods of just that rest, pace, breathing," said Pederson, who works at Leading Edge Physiotherapy Cancer Rehabilitation Centre. 

Christy Pederson, an Edmonton physiotherapist, wants long COVID patients to know that they are not alone and treatment is available (Keen Photography)

Pederson said the illness is earning its name, as some patients take several months to recover. A study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine found about five per cent of severe COVID-19 patients reported breathlessness a year after their release from hospital. 

"There's still lots of research that needs to be done to understand exactly what's going on and then to be able to successfully treat it," DeMars said.

She said post-viral infections are common, but not at the scale of COVID-19 infection. 

"When we are talking the numbers of COVID infections that we're seeing, 10 percent of that number is huge. We are talking about tens of thousands of people in Alberta potentially being disabled for a long time," DeMars said. 

Pederson wants long COVID patients to know they are not alone and treatment is available. 

"We are learning lots about this, and there are treatments out there that we can help them with so that they can return to some kind of functional level and get some quality of life back."