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Long COVID a focus of Veterans Affairs research study

Thousands of veterans are included in an ongoing study of the long-term impact of COVID. Data shows lingering effects can last for weeks, months or even years.
Posted at 8:58 AM, May 26, 2022

COLORADO SPRINGS — An estimated one in three Americans who have recovered from Covid suffer lingering symptoms of the virus, or 'long Covid'. The symptoms commonly associated are fatigue, brain fog, dizziness, and pain.

Emerging studies continue in both the public and private health sectors, including the National Institutes Of Health and Veterans Affairs. For vets alone, more than 620,000 have been diagnosed with Covid, more than 22,000 have died, and nearly four percent have died from related health conditions, roughly twice the rate of the general public in the United States.

Justin Verhulst works for the Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center in Pueblo. He's a veteran who served in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2014 and was diagnosed with Covid last fall. When I spoke with him recently at his office in Pueblo, he told me, "I still noticed that my loss of smell still kind of hangs around, I don't think it's ever really fully come back, so I deal with that, it's frustrating, but I do get tired easy."

Not only as a veteran, but among the millions diagnosed with Covid across the U.S. the past two years, he wants answers. It's personal and he's concerned, like so many others, about the long-term impact on quality of life. Verhulst said, "It is vital to get in front of something like this and it gives me some comfort that someone is already taking the initiative to dive into this so we can get the answers, we can be prepared."

Right now, there are 17 Veterans Affairs sites around the country, studying veterans who are feeling the lingering effects of Covid. An estimated 4,300 patients, of the more than 23,000 officially diagnosed with long Covid are taking part in this research.

The VA study will actually serve as an incubator of sorts for treatment and strategies moving forward, as it relates to long term Covid patients, it's also going to be part of a wide-ranging National Institutes of Health study, that is focusing on those with and without long term Covid symptoms. In fact, they're recruiting about 40,000 people right now to study those who are suffering from some of these symptoms.

Among the people directly involved in overseeing research for the VA here in Colorado is Dr. Edward Janoff, Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Eastern Colorado Health Services Center in Aurora. He's worked for the VA for more than over 35 years and is a clinician and investigator who specializes in infectious diseases.

The VA study is part of a cooperative studies program with NIH, a collaboration to find answers to so many questions tied to the root cause of Covid. And there are many questions to be answered in this complex puzzle of an evolving virus.

"You know, it could be let's say, maybe vaccinating people after they got Covid lowers the rates or severity of long Covid, maybe hormonal manipulation, maybe immune suppression or immune activation if Covid really lasted longer than we think, maybe the short term 3-5 day treatment we're giving people with Covid, maybe should be longer or re-instituted with people with long Covid," explained Dr. Janoff.

While Colorado is not yet currently among the 17 research sites across the VA network, there are studies that Dr. Janoff is overseeing here that will be part of the NIH research. The VA is uniquely qualified to take part in such a research study, given the care, education, and research it's provided for so long to so many veterans on a laundry list of debilitating diseases.

Dr. Janoff tells me, "Research is really required to have active and progressive and effective clinical care, so this kind of thing, what's the mechanism of long Covid, that if we can understand, is it hormonal, immunologic. What psychological, probably not, but that's probably a component. All of those things are geared toward understanding it, and once we understand it, then we can try to think about interventions."

Moving forward, the Colorado VA has applied for long Covid clinical studies here, which could begin in a matter of months. The sooner, the better, because more veterans are dying who contract Covid and have other, underlying conditions.

"Our primary goal is to prevent hospitalization, respiratory failure, and death, and people who have these underlying diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, age over 65, heart, liver, lung disease, those are people with worst outcomes", Dr. Janoff told me.

Research is still emerging on multiple fronts in this country, an executive order from President Biden recently aims to expand the one billion dollar study underway at the NIH and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The order will also make long Covid care as accessible as possible, and ensure that insurance coverage, both private and public, is available.

UC Health has also received grant money to research long Covid. Dr. Janoff says that it has really been an unexpected and unwelcome consequence of Covid, and while it is a hot topic right now, he says, it's a very important topic, with so many lives at stake.

The reality of the research so far, which is still in its infancy, is that Covid is never really going to go away, the key is to develop long term solutions, how many people will get it, how serious was it for them, how did they respond to treatment, what treatment did they use, who suffered long term symptoms?

But Dr. Janoff can't emphasize enough, personal responsibility when it comes to preventing the onset or recurrence of Covid, getting vaccinated, wearing masks when appropriate, utilizing anti-body treatments and the like.

He says that veterans need to be proactive as well, don't be shy when it comes to speaking with their doctor about symptoms that linger and other underlying conditions they might have, particularly those over age 65. But this is a virus that does not discriminate when it comes to age, so any research that is done for veterans will be applied to the nation as a whole. Dr. Janoff concluded, "What we do for veterans research is patient-centric, but it applies to everyone."

Read more about the Veterans Affairs research into long Covid.