In-Depth: New UCSD research aims to help COVID-19 'long haulers'

Posted at 10:40 AM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-18 23:00:25-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - New research is helping doctors and patients understand why some symptoms of COVID-19 linger in patients for weeks or months after their infection ends.

"They call themselves Long-Haulers," says Dr. Lucy Horton, an Infectious Disease specialist at UC San Diego.

"It's still a really big challenge," she says. "Since we don't really understand why they're having the symptoms, it makes it hard to treat them and to cure them."

But change is on the way.

The National Institutes of Health recently gave the condition a name, calling it "Post Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV2," or "PASC."

Giving it a name is the first step towards recognizing the syndrome and treatment.

"Honestly, I got chills when I heard that," says San Marcos resident Jennica Harris. She contracted COVID-19 last April and is still dealing with symptoms.

Harris says it's been frustrating convincing doctors, friends, and family that she still struggles with the disease.

"Every time I had family members or friends call me to check on me or just say hi, I had nothing else to say but that I'm still sick. And nobody really understood that," says Harris.

The CDC says 10% of COVID-19 patients still have symptoms weeks or even months after their infection. Other studies estimate that number could be around 35%.

With more than 110 million people contracting COVID-19 in the past year, that means anywhere from 11-35 million people could have PASC.

According to the CDC, the most common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, and chest pain.

UC San Diego is one of several healthcare systems that now run Post-COVID Clinics. They brought together dozens of experts and specialists from around the area to study PASC and look for cures.

So far, they've learned that it typically affects people under 50 and is most common in women. Dr. Horton says it also seems to affect people who had mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 more than people who had severe cases.

But there's still no conclusion about why people get it or if the symptoms will ever disappear.

"Honestly, that's the million-dollar question," says Dr. Horton.

To answer it, the NIH recently earmarked $1.15 billion for PASC research.

Harris, who has already taken part in four different post-COVID studies, hopes the new research will lead to new answers.

"The more we can do to help scientists and doctors and researchers to find cures and treatments, the better off," she says.