A year after omicron, North Texas physicians are concerned about COVID’s long-term impact
One year after the COVID-19 omicron variant began its spread across Texas, doctors are concerned about the effects of “long COVID” — even as case numbers and hospitalizations have declined.
The World Health Organization reported omicron’s emergence in November of last year, with the variant quickly becoming the dominant strain Texas and across the U.S. Its spread during December and January delayed school openings and strained hospital capacity.
At one point in mid-January, more than 60,000 Texans had the virus, the largest number of cases the state had ever seen since starting COVID-19 tracking.
But while North Texas physicians aren’t seeing the same numbers they did one year ago, they are concerned about a wide variety of lingering symptoms, like brain fog, nerve damage, fatigue, shortness of breath and irregular heartbeat.
Dr. Surendra Barshikar, who sees patients from both Parkland Health and UT Southwestern as the director of the COVID Recover Clinic, says physicians need to be proactive in diagnosing lingering symptoms because COVID is becoming a chronic condition.
“There’s no one test, there’s no simple exam that can diagnose long COVID,” Barshikar said. “It’s based on history, it’s based on detail assessments, and it’s basically a clinical diagnosis.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a little less than 20% of people who tested positive for COVID have developed long COVID symptoms. Symptoms can appear anywhere between four to 12 weeks after recovering from COVID, Barshikar said.
The COVID Recover Clinic helps patients identify and manage “muscle, lung, and brain function…after being infected with COVID-19.” He says about two-thirds of patients in the clinic do improve, and for many it’s about symptom management over time.
“Basically if you have lingering symptoms or you develop new symptom after the initial, acute infection is done, you have long COVID,” he said.
There are post-viral symptoms from other diseases like Ebola that physicians can draw on to understand COVID-19, but Barshikar said it’s not an exact match.
“We knew certain post-viral conditions existed, but the magnitude of this one, and the symptoms and the systems that are involved in this one is like no other,” he said.
Chief Medical Officer for Parkland Health Joseph Chang says there’s a lot epidemiologists and health scientists still don’t know about the virus, according to Chief Medical Officer for Parkland Health.
“In the grand scheme of things, we are in our infancy in understanding a disease like COVID,” he said. “We still discover new things about HIV, year after year, and we’ve been dealing with HIV as a major health problem, in at least this country, for three, four decades now. Science doesn’t move that fast, and it does take time to see some of these things.”
The other challenge, says Chang, is that there isn’t a cure for long COVID.
“The example I’ve used of people having residual lung damage that now need oxygen…we don’t know anything about making that need of oxygen go away,” he said. “We don’t really know how to fix the root of the problem. Right now, identification is certainly possible, but effective treatments are still lagging.”
Both Barshikar and Chang urge people to stay up to date with COVID vaccinations and boosters, as they’re currently the only tested way to lessen the risk of long COVID. In Texas, only about 63% of people over 6 months are fully vaccinated.
“Prevention is really the only way of guaranteeing you won’t have some of these long-term symptoms,” Chang said. “Once you get them, it’s too late.”
“Even now if we see the severity of acute COVID is low, I still recommend to some of my patients that never considered vaccinations in the beginning to get vaccinated,” Barshikar said. “And not just to prevent acute disease, but to prevent long COVID.”
Chang says he hopes COVID becomes just one of the many viruses health professionals diagnose and treat over the next few years, but doctors caution that even a mild case of the virus could lead to lifelong complications.
“It’s too late to regret it once you’re there,” Chang said. “Once it’s happened, it’s happened. So again, prevention, prevention, prevention.”
KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.