Montreal

Quebec study aims to develop treatment for COVID-19 long-haulers

The Impact Quebec COVID-19 Long Haul Study aims to evaluate 200 adults of various ages experiencing long-term effects of the disease for one year.

Long-term COVID symptoms include memory loss, heart palpitations and shortness of breath

Dr. Thao Huynh wants to raise awareness about the long-term effects of catching COVID-19. (McGill University Health Centre)

Nine months after catching COVID-19 while on duty in a hot zone, frontline worker Josée Laroche can barely walk.

"I need, in fact, to get myself a wheelchair," she told CBC Montreal's Let's Go. "My heart was perfectly healthy before COVID. I was never sick."

With little research available on treatments for patients with lasting COVID symptoms, she turned to a Quebec study trying to minimize COVID complications for "long-haulers" like herself, whose lives were upended despite surviving the infection.

Spearheaded by epidemiologist and cardiologist Dr. Thao Huynh of the McGill University Health Centre, the Impact Quebec COVID-19 Long Haul Study aims to evaluate 200 adults of various ages experiencing long-term effects of the disease for one year.

The $250,000 project, financed by a Pfizer Inc. grant from September 2020, will allow researchers from McGill and Université de Sherbrooke to test subjects' cardiovascular health, gastrointestinal and urinary systems and their intellectual functioning.

Dr. Huynh says the COVID-19 vaccine supplier provided her team with the grant without imposing conditions on their work.

"We designed it from A to Z," she said. "It was probably the most unconditional grant that I ever had."

'The pain never stopped'

Heart palpitations, vicious migraines, intense vertigo, and brain fog are just some of the severe symptoms that plague patients, Dr. Huynh says.

"A lot of patients' symptoms have improved by one year, but we do have a few that now the infection has been more than 14 months, and they're still very symptomatic," she said.

While the number of COVID-19 infection cases globally nears 200 million, the exact number of people who are debilitated after the infection is unknown.

"I have seen quite a few patients who were young and healthy … who got sick and who cannot do anything anymore," Dr. Huynh said.

Josée Laroche says she took three COVID-19 tests before finding out she was positive. (Submitted by Josée Laroche)

She is warning young people who may think they are immune to COVID that they too can get long-term symptoms.

Currently, young adults in Quebec are part of the age group eligible for the vaccine with the lowest vaccination rate in the province (70 per cent),

In a tweet Thursday, Quebec's health minister Christian Dubé said almost half of new COVID-19 cases in the province between July 1 to 20 were found in 20-to-30-year-olds.

"Some of the patients do not feel the initial infection but then after that they get the severe symptoms," Dr. Huynh said.

Laroche says she hopes similar studies will prompt the Quebec government to recognize the gravity of COVID-19 long-haulers' suffering.

"For me, [the pain] never really stopped after the big infection," Laroche said.

"In a way, I'm lucky enough that I got sick from work so I am compensated, but there are people who are sick who barely can afford living."

Patients who want to participate in the study must have been diagnosed with COVID-19 for at least two months and must have experienced symptoms suggestive of heart problems before joining.

With files from CBC Montreal's Let's Go

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