COVID 'long haulers': Look inside Stanford's study on COVID patients with lingering symptoms

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Doctors at Stanford are tackling a side of the COVID crisis that's stayed somewhat in the shadows. Its victims aren't counted in the headlines, but rather linger in a frustrating cycle of long-term symptoms.

Rick St. John is trying to help doctors at Stanford crack an on-going mystery of COVID-19, why some patients are still experiencing symptoms months after being infected. The group is known as long-haulers.

"Instead of being a nice smooth slope towards recovery, I'd start to feel better then I'd get worse, then I'd feel better then I'd feel worse," says St. John.
Especially frustrating for an avid skier and runner, who found himself out of breath, with recurring bouts of fatigue.

"We were surprised at how many patients continue to have symptoms many months after their diagnosis," says Dr. Aruna Subramanian, MD, of Stanford Medicine.

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Problems remembering names and conversations, difficulty paying attention, and slower processing speeds -- these are all symptoms that people are experiencing post-COVID-19 infections, a new UCSF study indicates.

For months, Dr. Subramanian and a growing team at Stanford have been studying roughly 100 long-haul patients, putting them through a dizzying battery of tests, including cognition, strength, and endurance as well as neurological immune response.

The study is known as IRIS is casting a wide net for a reason. While the majority of the patients were never hospitalized, Dr. Subramanian says they're reporting ongoing feelings like fatigue, memory loss or brain fog - often affecting their daily lives.

"We are finding that their memory and attention span, their recall ability, all of that is really down," she says.

Along with neurological testing, the group has also focused on possible immune system disruptions. And they're investigating drugs like steroids that might help.

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Many patients who initially experienced milder COVID-19 symptoms are now showing up at the doctor's office months later with debilitating problems. They're being called "long-haulers."

While answers haven't come yet, Dr. Subramanian says the syndrome now has the full attention of the National Institutes of Health, which is expected to ramp up funding for nationwide studies.

For many patients like Rick, a breakthrough can't come soon enough.

"I'm kind of at the point where I'm out of good ideas you know," he says.

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Long after the pandemic subsides, doctors predict we will see the impact on COVID-19 survivors for years to come.

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