Research Center Readies Care For Long-Haulers as NJ Enters Third Year of Pandemic

As New Jersey enters its third pandemic year, officials are preparing to find ways for residents to coexist with the coronavirus. But even as cases and hospitalizations drop, one research institute in the Garden State is keeping its focus on the long-term effects of catching the disease.

The COVID-19 Institute of New Jersey studies these so-called COVID long-haulers, or people who still struggle with symptoms weeks, or even months, after their initial infection. The condition is also sometimes called post-COVID syndrome.

Dr. Angel Lazo is the medical director of the institute, based at Christ Hospital in Jersey City, which is also charged with providing care with those afflicted. He told WNYC host Michael Hill that close to 30% of people who catch coronavirus develop a long-hauler symptom. He said the general public would be surprised to learn that long-haulers tend to be relatively young adults, bucking the trend seen with severe forms of COVID-19 in older people.

Their interview is below and has been lightly edited for clarity.

We’ve heard a lot about people with long-term symptoms following a COVID infection. What sort of symptoms are you seeing there at the institute?

Well, we’re seeing pretty much the whole gamut. The number-one complaint from individuals — and this is universal for just about all of them — is that they don’t feel the same as before they were actually infected.

The most common symptoms are things like fatigue, which is inexplicable to them. It’s very hard for them to describe it. Other regular signs include shortness of breath, cough, brain fog, cognitive issues, anxiety, depression, insomnia and palpitations.

How common is this and who’s being affected the most?

Well, roughly, we believe that roughly anywhere from 20% to 30% of the individuals that were actually infected will have some kind of sequelae — or long-haul-type syndrome.

The interesting thing is that most long-haulers are typically younger individuals, which is a little bit counterintuitive. It especially hits hard for the younger population that’s actually very fit.

One of the problems with long-haulers is that when they start getting these symptoms — this chronic fatigue, this brain fog — it’s in a lot of individuals who are very active. They go to the gym one or two hours a day, and they try to push through this disease.

And that’s one of the worst things you can do – because it actually makes the condition worse.

Omicron is milder than past variants such as Delta. But it spreads faster, and as you mentioned, has hit more people. Does this mean the chances of someone becoming a long-hauler are higher?

Theoretically, the answer is yes. Because typically, the individuals that actually get long-hauler symptoms are those that had much milder disease. And a lot of the individuals didn’t even know they were infected. They thought they had a little bit of a common cold, a little stuffiness in the nose. They might have lost their sense of taste or smell, and maybe that lasted about a day or two.

But then anywhere from two to six weeks later, they start to get much worse symptomatology. Again, their loss of sense of smell and taste persists, and they start to develop fatigue and brain fog.

Their interview is below and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Do the vaccines lower the chances of becoming a long-hauler?

No, not necessarily, because again, the general criteria for a long-hauler is to be infected. Now, just because you got the vaccine and you get less symptomatology doesn’t necessarily equal that you’re less susceptible to actually getting long-hauler.

How do you treat these patients, given the wide variety of symptoms?

Because there is no actual treatment for post-COVID syndrome, most therapy relies on reassurance relaxation techniques. Breathing techniques actually help a lot.

There are also several treatment buckets that we can put individuals into based on their symptoms. Some of them have more of an autoimmune type of disorder, for example, like rheumatoid arthritis. We have an idea as to what are effective therapies based on what we’ve used for other similar diseases.

Other patients have more of an abnormal immunological or autonomic response. In other words, the electrical wiring in your body is not working the way it should.

When a blood vessel should dilate, it basically contracts. Other times, when it should contract, it dilates. That’s a separate group of diseases, and that’s what we try to use off-label remedies for

What’s your take on the recent relaxation of restrictions such as mask and vaccine mandates in New York and New Jersey, given the chances of long COVID?

The public really needs to understand that the number-one thing for COVID is really common sense. We really need to focus and take personal responsibility. The common sense factor is always number one in my book.

The only mask that really actually protects individuals from being infected or infecting other individuals is an N95 mask.

Cloth masks and even surgical masks honestly always offered very little, if any protection. But those latter face coverings, I think, unfortunately gave the public a false sense of security. We’re starting to follow a little bit more of the science right now.

Please note this article was originally featured on on March 4, 2022.

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