U of M team awarded grant to study long COVID-19

Large-scale study will help define condition affecting some with COVID-19 infections

Graphic by Marina Djurdjevic, staff

A team of U of M researchers have been awarded a $202,005 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study the effects of long COVID. Alan Katz, director of the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy and professor of community health sciences and family medicine, is one of the principal investigators for the project.

Katz and his co-investigators will use a health system database to gain a better understanding of long COVID, with the aim of improving the definition of the condition, determining its predictors and how many are affected by it.

Long COVID, also known as post COVID-19 condition, occurs in some patients following infection with COVID-19. It is currently unclear why it occurs in some patients but not others. The condition is distinct from the viral infection and symptoms can occur months after the initial onset of illness, including after recovering. These symptoms last for at least two months and may differ from those experienced during the initial infection.

There have been over 100 reported symptoms, the most common of which include fatigue, memory problems and shortness of breath. One of the goals of the study is to examine symptoms at the population level, determining the frequency of symptoms that have previously been identified and defining new ones.

To achieve their goals, the researchers will use population-level data derived from the Manitoba Population Research Data Repository. This database contains administrative information and medical history data for every person that has come in contact with the Manitoba health-care system. The data is anonymous, with all personal information removed to protect patient privacy.

Examples of the types of data found in the database include notes from primary care physicians (with the names of the provider and patient removed), hospital admissions and pre-existing conditions. The database presents a unique opportunity for Manitoban researchers to investigate the condition at the population level.

Researchers will analyze the medical data of individuals who received positive COVID-19 diagnoses, looking at three broad groups of patients: those with minor symptoms, those who were hospitalized and those who required intensive care. Researchers will take note of whether they visited their physicians more frequently after infection, reported surprising symptoms or were admitted to hospital.

Along with following patients after their infection, Katz and his collaborators will have access to patient medical history prior to the onset of symptoms. This will allow them to identify likely risk factors and potentially associate long COVID symptoms with pre-existing conditions such as cardiovascular disease and asthma.

“These are subtleties about understanding people’s health prior to COVID, the actual true COVID infection experience and how those two interact to influence their long COVID experience,” said Katz.

The results of this study will help clinicians to diagnose and treat long COVID and will guide the allocation of health-care resources. One of the concerns of the research team is to ensure equal access to rehabilitation that can help patients manage their symptoms. The lack of available rehabilitation services, which is usually only covered with private insurance, can create a gap for those who already suffered the most from COVID-19, namely First Nations communities and those who work frontline jobs, such as retail workers.

The research project has already garnered public interest. Katz stated that the volume of calls and emails he has received indicates the high level of curiosity in this topic, as well as the uncertainty.

“This is very much something that the public is concerned about and is interested in learning about,” said Katz.

Understanding of this condition is rapidly evolving. There is currently no single way to diagnose or treat long COVID. Katz hopes this research will shed some light on the condition.

“[It’s] fascinating to be able to answer those questions and be able to give some guidance, both to patients and to health-care providers,” said Katz.