So much attention has been paid to the people who come down with COVID-19, the inability to breath, being put on a ventilator and the struggle to deal with the massive influx of patients seen just a few short months ago.
However, not nearly as much focus has been paid to those who struggled and survived the ordeal, particularly those with lasting health impacts.
That’s something St. Charles Hospital is trying to rectify with a new Post COVID Rehabilitation Program, which offers physical therapy for those who are still feeling the health impacts of living with the virus.
The rehab program officially started Sept. 7, and currently has two people starting their recovery. Hospital rehab officials said they are hosting evaluations with more people to initiate them into the group setting.
Laura Beck, St. Charles’ vice president of rehabilitation, said there is very little available data that discusses exactly what are the health impacts of people after they’ve already suffered through the virus, but anecdotally, people have described profound muscle weakness, joint pain and many issues with patients’ ability to breath, even long after they have come off a ventilator. One study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in July, showed that close to 87% of hospitalized COVID patients reported lingering symptoms for two months or more after the fact.
Building off the rehabilitation program the hospital has for pulmonary patients, St. Charles has designed the new COVID rehab with the same mindset.
“The most frequently reported symptom that does exist is shortness of breath and fatigue, followed by joint pain,” she said. “All three of those things are frequently addressed by physical therapy, and were commonly addressed in our pulmonary rehab program. We had the staff and experience to address these things.”
Post-COVID patients are given an initial evaluation and then are put into a group setting to be treated by a physical therapist, similar to what St. Charles does in other rehab settings. Toward the end of each patients’ time they are given another quality of life assessment as well as an endurance test to see how much they improve physically.
A few outpatient care facilities have launched post-COVID rehabilitation, but St. Charles is one of the first major hospitals on Long Island to offer an in-house clinic in a traditional group setting.
How many physical therapists eventually get involved depends on how large the program becomes. Currently the class size is kept small to try and space people out and adhere to social distancing. For patients that cannot tolerate a group program, Beck said they do plan to offer a more one-on-one situation until they can be put into the full exercise class.
Director of St. Charles’s Rehabilitation Services Pattianne Ruppel said most likely people who are feeling lasting effects of COVID are older, though that’s not always the case. Those who were young and/or asymptomatic likely wouldn’t feel any lasting symptoms.
Because so little is known about what are the true lasting health effects from being crippled by the coronavirus, the St. Charles officials in charge of rehabilitation said this is also a chance to start gathering data on what is common amongst post-COVID patients. If they get enough people in the program, the St. Charles officials said they could even look to put out their own information.
“We would all love to say that some time in the future we won’t need this program,” Ruppel said. “We still see people with these lasting respiratory symptoms, so I definitely see a need for sure.”