Essentia Health offers new rehab program for ‘long COVID’ sufferers
The Post-COVID-19 Rehabilitation Program is for patients recovering from COVID-19 and is offered at all Essentia locations.
BRAINERD — Essentia Health launched a new program last May for those suffering long-term effects from a COVID-19 illness.
The Post-COVID-19 Rehabilitation Program is for patients recovering from COVID-19 and is offered at all Essentia locations. Patients within this program range from those who were sick with COVID-19 but recovered at home to those who were critically ill and hospitalized.
“We've had a lot of improvements related to that, especially around trying to develop our modeling or internal referrals from our clinicians to help them better understand the symptoms — when to refer and to whom to refer,” said Dr. Peter Henry on April 21.
Henry is Essentia Health’s chief medical officer for the Brainerd lakes area. His primary practice location is at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd.
“One of the key things for the public to know is the timeline as to when you would might seek some treatment, the benefits of the treatment, but also kind of knowing what symptoms are typical for a COVID long-hauler,” Henry said.
Long COVID is estimated to have affected up to 23 million Americans, with some experts believing the number is even higher.
"Post-COVID conditions are a wide range of new, returning or ongoing health problems people can experience four or more weeks after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19," according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
Even people who did not have COVID-19 symptoms in the days or weeks after they were infected can have post-COVID conditions, according to the CDC, and these conditions can present as different types and combinations of health problems for different lengths of time.
“We want people to be aware of what are the symptoms of COVID long-hauler, when should they seek care from their clinician and then, specifically, allow our clinician to our program,” Henry said of Essentia’s Post-COVID-19 Rehabilitation Program.
The multidisciplinary approach is a mix of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and behavioral therapy. Therapists use objective and measurable tests to show the progress the patient is making.
“We're even trying to further divide that into physical medicine rehabilitation — when might be appropriate to see a lung specialist or a pulmonologist, when might be appropriate to see a neurologist — based on the specific symptoms,” Henry said.
The CDC is working to identify how common post-COVID conditions are, who is most likely to get them, and why some symptoms eventually improve for some people and may last longer for other people.
“It's estimated that anywhere between 10% and 30% of individuals who are diagnosed with COVID-19 — even when they have mild or moderate cases of an acute viral infection — will develop long COVID,” Henry said of the 3 to 10 million Americans that will be affected.
Anyone who has had COVID-19 can later develop a post-COVID condition, according to the CDC, and although post-COVID conditions appear to be less common in children and adolescents, long-term effects after COVID-19 do occur in those age groups.
Henry said of Essentia’s program, “We try to fine-tune the referrals that we make based on the symptoms, so if you have a lot of postural symptoms where you're feeling lightheaded, dizzy, you have a lot of fatigue, your balance is impaired, then we would send you to a physical therapist.”
The most common symptoms reported have been tiredness or fatigue, headache, trouble sleeping (insomnia), trouble concentrating, muscle and joint pain, and cough, according to the CDC.
“If you're having difficulty with kind of daily tasks, energy, vision problems, poor organization, we would send you to occupational therapy,” Henry said. “The brain fog is oftentimes dealt with by speech therapy when people can't kind of process things the way they normally would.”
These conditions might also be complicated by other effects related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including mental health effects from isolation, negative economic situations and lack of access to health care for managing underlying conditions, according to the CDC.
“You might get referred to speech therapy and occupational therapy along with a health psychologist or behavioral health specialist depending on the constellation symptoms that that individual has,” Henry said of Essentia’s program. “Not everybody has every symptom.”
Because of the variability of people’s experiences with the lingering effects of COVID-19, it can be challenging for doctors to identify.
“There's not a specific test saying you have long COVID, there's not a specific test that says that you have chronic fatigue syndrome, so, yeah, it is more difficult than, for example, diagnosing low thyroid,” Henry said.
Although Essentia Health is experiencing a significant spike in the number of patients referred to the rehabilitation program, Henry said the exact number of the system’s long COVID patients is difficult to track. Not everyone suffering with long COVID ends up in the program, with some seeking help for their symptoms from other specialists.
“I will tell you — between January, February and March — we have seen a fourfold increase in referrals,” Henry said of Essentia’s multidisciplinary treatment program. “On top of that, we think there are a lot of people who are getting sent or referred for these therapies.”
Post-COVID conditions may also be known as post-acute COVID-19, long-term effects of COVID or chronic COVID.
“Just in the Brainerd lakes area so far, in March of this year, we had around 18 referrals,” Henry said of Essentia’s treatment program. “We think that that's just kind of the tip of the iceberg. We think that we're missing a number of those because of how we identify them.”
Henry emphasized the best way to avoid becoming a long COVID patient is to not get COVID in the first place by becoming vaccinated against the infectious disease.
“We want people to understand that the symptoms can be treated, that they can be kind of tough to identify, the timeline as to when they should seek symptom treatment … and the therapy is effective,” Henry said.
To schedule an appointment with the therapy team, call 218-828-7375. For more information, contact Joan Jeanetta, Essentia’s rehabilitation services director, by phone at 218-786-5366 or by email at Joan.Jeanetta@essentiahealth.org .
Signs of long COVID
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath,
- Tiredness or fatigue,
- Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities,
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as "brain fog"),
- Chest or stomach pain,
- Fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations),
- Joint or muscle pain,
- Pins-and-needles feeling,
- Sleep problems,
- Dizziness on standing (lightheadedness),
- Mood changes,
- Change in smell or taste, and
- Changes in menstrual period cycles.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention