‘Significant’ portion of Quebec health-care workers suffered from long COVID: study

A new study on long COVID in Quebec shows that a “significant” percentage of health-care workers who caught the virus suffered persistent symptoms at least three months after their acute phase of the infection.

The study surveyed Quebec health-care workers who were infected with COVID-19 in the first three waves of the pandemic, between July 2020 and May 2021, and were not hospitalized. A sample of symptomatic health workers with a negative PCR test result served as a control group in the study.

Researchers found among the 6,000 workers who responded and were positive, 46 per cent still had at least one post-COVID condition after four weeks and 40 per cent had at least one symptom after three months.

Dr. Gaston de Serres, the principal investigator of the study, said that a “high proportion” of workers were still suffering from conditions like fatigue — the most commonly reported symptom — but also symptoms like fever, shortness of breath, and chest pain. About a third of the respondents reported a severe symptom, according to the study, which was funded by Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services.

FATIGUE MOST COMMON SYMPTOM

“One mild symptom may not be so clinically significant. But, still, about a third of all those had at least one severe symptom, and that means a lot of people who were still presenting sufficient symptoms. To say [a symptom is] severe, three months past their acute phase of COVID-19, this is a very significant percentage,” said de Serres, an epidemiologist practitioner at the l’Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) and an infectious disease researcher at the CHU de Québec-Laval University.

The Quebec study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, showed fatigue was reported as “mild” or “severe” in more than 80 per cent of health-care workers. Other symptoms that were part of the study include difficulty walking, loss of smell, loss of taste, joint or muscle pain, abdominal pain, diarrhea, sore throat and runny nose.

Compared to their non-infected counterparts in the study, health-care workers who suffered from long COVID were twice as likely to report cognitive dysfunction and three times more likely to report psychological distress, according to de Serres, who noted that the data predates the less severe Omicron wave. Today, many more workers are adequately vaccinated compared to when the study was done, he added. 

“Not all of what we found could be ‘attributed’ to post-COVID conditions, but those COVID conditions [are] clearly affecting cognitive functions,” de Serres said.

For him, one of the main takeaways of the research is that long COVID could have a “profound” impact on the health-care network if enough workers are not able to perform their jobs. “What we’re saying is, if the problem persists — and persists not only for 12 weeks, but longer than that — it could have an effect on how these health-care workers may perform over the short, medium or even long term, professionally speaking,” he said.

Long COVID was the focus of a recent feature by CTV News in which Montreal resident Robert Romeo opened up about how his life was turned upside down after being diagnosed with COVID-19 one year ago. He’s one of many people suffering from long COVID symptoms.

It is still unclear how many Quebecers may be suffering from long COVID, but one government estimate suggests it could affect as many as one in five people who catch the virus.

Dr. Thao Huynh, an epidemiologist and cardiologist at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), is leading one of the first major studies on long COVID in Quebec. She treated Romeo for his lingering COVID conditions, but said many of the people affected by long COVID are health-care workers.

“My patients went to war to fight this virus for society and every day is an uphill battle trying to get financial support,” she said.

“Some of them cannot walk anymore. I have patients who have to be wheeled around — and we’re talking 30-year-olds who were very healthy before — and people don’t want to pay for it.” 

14 MONTHS LATER, MONTREAL DOCTOR STILL SUFFERING

The findings of the study were not at all a shock to Dr. Anne Bhéreur, a family physician in Montreal who continues to suffer from long COVID since she was infected in December 2020.

In an interview with CTV News on Friday, her speech was slowed, her breathing was laboured, and, at times, she needed to pause and catch her breath due to her weakened vocal cords, which required Botox injections.

“I must say I wasn’t totally surprised,” she said of the research.

She used to work in a palliative care unit but she has not been back at work for 14 months. She said her condition has improved, but her brain fog makes tasks as small as reading a tall order.

“I have the time to concentrate and check myself, make sure I understood everything very well. Re-read, re-check. But when you’re in the hospital or in the clinic, you don’t have the luxury of re-questioning yourself with every bit of thing, every moment,” she said.

Bhéreur, who suffers from post-exertional malaise (PEM), is calling for the health-care system to accommodate those workers who are experiencing lingering symptoms and to give them the time they need to recover before resuming normal activities so they don’t push themselves too far.

With most public health measures being lifted in Quebec on Saturday, many are starting to put the pandemic behind them, at least in a metaphorical sense, but the risk is still very real for many people who are vulnerable, like Bhéreur. She hopes that people will not “shame” people for wearing masks once they are no longer mandatory in certain settings.

BETTER TREATMENT FOR LONG COVID PATIENTS

What the Quebec study underlined is that there is still more research needed to better understand long COVID and how to treat it. With little information out there for people like her, Bhéreur is part of a Facebook support group for people with long COVID to share information about the condition and the latest research.

The Ministry of Health and Social Services said it has created three post-COVID clinics to study the issue; one in Montreal, one in Sherbrooke, and a third at the CISSS de la Montérégie-Ouest.

“An organization of services will be deployed in the near future to help people with long-standing COVID, with details regarding the deployment of new multidisciplinary clinics to be announced in due course,” a spokesperson for the health ministry wrote in an email to CTV News.

In the meantime, the ministry is waiting for a report on long COVID being done by the Institut national d’excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS), a collective of scientists and researchers that reports to the ministry of health. That report is expected to guide the ministry on how to offer services by people affected by persistent COVID symptoms.

Those who suffer from them but can’t access those three clinics can still seek medical care from the health-care network or their family doctors.

With files from CTV News’ Rachel Lau and Maya Johnson

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