Healthcare system not ready for ‘tsunami’ of long COVID cases: experts

Canada reportedly lags other countries in disease preparedness and research

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Advocates, scientists, patients and others are warning of a coming tsunami of people with disabilities following a long COVID. And there are growing fears that the healthcare system is unprepared.

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“It is anticipated that COVID over the long term will have a substantial and lasting impact on our health care system,” Sen. Stan Kutcher said during a lengthy COVID awareness conference this week. “And let’s remember that this is a system that can currently be characterized as running on empty.”

Kutcher, a psychiatrist specializing in adolescent mental health who is an independent senator, has focused on issues such as vaccine misinformation since his appointment to the Senate. He calls for changes – including a focus on health system preparedness and better support for people with disabilities – to help those suffering from long COVID.

“Can we expect this broken system to now rally effectively to meet the needs of Canadians suffering from long COVID? He asked.

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“We need to start moving very quickly to make changes to our health care system to improve capacity because the long COVID will put additional pressure on the system and the people working in it,” he said.

He was speaking as part of a virtual town hall to mark National Long COVID Awareness Day in Canada. The event was organized by the group COVID-19 Resources Canada and featured researchers, doctors and patients.

Dr. Anne Bhereur, a Montreal family and palliative care physician, is both. Bheréur, who has long had COVID after contracting the disease in the palliative care unit where she works, struggled to catch her breath during her speech.

Organizers said Canada has work to do to even define and understand the scope of long COVID in the country.

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I’m homebound and exhausted, my beloved career I’ve worked so hard to build is gone and I can’t work.

Anna McGinn

“Many countries in the World Health Organization have all created definitions. Canada has fallen behind and we urge health authorities to provide us with an appropriate definition and response,” said Dr. Yanet Valdez Tejeira, immunologist and BC COVID-19 lead. The lack of a standard definition is a barrier to studying and measuring the prevalence of the disease, she said.

The term COVID long refers to some 200 symptoms that can develop in people who have had COVID-19, including neurological, cardiac, respiratory and many others.

Ontario’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table estimated earlier this year that between 57,000 and 78,000 people in the province had suffered from post-acute syndrome of COVID-19, another name for the long COVID. This range has probably increased.

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Public Health Ontario, in a review of long-COVID research it released in April, also warned of the need to prepare the health care system.

“In order to plan for a potential increase in the use of healthcare resources post-COVID-19, the healthcare system must understand PACS (post-acute COVID syndrome) in recovering patients. Knowledge of the risk factors associated with the development of PACS may be able to help track those at risk for additional morbidity and direct resources appropriately.

Public Health Ontario’s review found a prevalence of PACS ranging from approximately 51% to 80% of patients after COVID-19.

Awareness Day roundtable participants noted that long COVID occurs both in people who have had severe cases of COVID-19 and in those who have had mild or no symptoms. Audiences have heard from patients whose lives have been all but cut short by the long COVID.

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“I’m homebound and exhausted, my beloved career, which I’ve worked so hard to build, is gone and I can’t work. Long COVID has been really devastating,” said panelist Carrie Anna McGinn, a woman from Quebec.

“There is a tsunami of disability coming to Canada as a result of the long COVID,” she predicted.

Yale professor and researcher Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, who researched the long COVID, predicted a “chronic disabling event” in many people who do not recover from COVID-19.

Kutcher, meanwhile, said Canada lags behind other countries when it comes to preparedness and research into the many facets of the disease.

The federal government committed $20 million for extensive COVID research in its latest budget, but Kutcher said that’s far from what’s needed to better understand and treat it.

“There is a real urgency to get into this basic science and prepare for a long COVID.”

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