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3 Alberta clinics study long-term effects of COVID-19, lasting symptoms

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A trio of new clinics in Alberta are collecting data to help doctors better understand post-COVID-19 symptoms.

“The purpose of this is to try to detect people who may have some scarring or potentially other lung conditions that are explaining their symptoms,” said Jason Weatherald, an assistant professor of Respirology a the University of Calgary.

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“The long-term effects of COVID are still incompletely understood, but we know that up to 30 to 40 per cent of people may still experience shortness of breath,” Weatherald said. “Maybe one in 10 patients may still be experiencing a cough.

“And a lot of patients still experience things like fatigue or mental health issues, even three months after the diagnosis.

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“In some cases, the degree of damage to the lung may actually be quite severe.”

The idea for the two clinics in Calgary and one in Edmonton came from Alberta doctors monitoring international data on post-COVID-19 issues, knowing there have been post-viral issues following H1N1, MERS and SARS.

Read more: Delaying second dose of coronavirus vaccines is ‘risky gamble’: experts

Clinic locations include the Peter Lougheed Centre, Rockyview General Hospital and a University of Alberta-affiliated clinic. They are a multi-disciplinary effort, involving universities in both cities and Alberta Health Services.

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Dr. Patrick Mitchell, director of the asthma and COPD program at Rockview General Hospital, said his fellow doctors wanted to get “ahead of the curve.”

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Read more: ‘We know this is real’: New clinics for coronavirus long-haulers crop up in U.S.

“We got in touch with senior management at the university site and Alberta Health Services, who were extremely supportive of us pushing this forward and making sure that we were doing our best to try and capture this data,” Mitchell said.

Admission to the specialty clinics is by referral only to patients who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and still have effects after more than three months.

Doctors take the patients through a battery of respiratory-related testing, which can include breathing tests, imaging and possibly blood tests, while also taking into account patient history.

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Data collected in these clinics is not being shared internationally or with other doctors in Alberta, but that could change, to offer a better idea of long-term effects.

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“With patient consent going forward and with the approval of our regional and provincial ethics board, we may well seek to actually collaborate with other institutions who have garnered such data to try and further our knowledge base and understanding what’s going on,” Mitchell said.

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It’s still early in the understanding of COVID-19 and all its effects, with the first Canadian case being documented less than a year ago. And the data collected will help University of Calgary researchers for years to come.

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“We’re going to be studying the outcomes of these patients and we’re going to look at things like quality of life and neurocognitive outcomes over the long term, because we really don’t know if we’re out of the woods yet with COVID,” Weatherald said.

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“There may be subsequent waves and this may also inform future pandemics.

“So we’re hoping to give patients the opportunity to participate in research so we can plan for the future.”

Mitchell, with a history working in Ireland and the UK’s National Health Service, said the system-wide rush to collaborate and help the post-COVID patients was “an eyeopener.”

“It’s an eyeopener to have so many dedicated professionals at all levels of seniority who have dedicated their time, calls, evenings, weekends with kids, with everything that’s going on, to really try to make sure that we offer the best possible service we can to Albertans.”

–with files from Lauren Pullen, Global News