Long COVID among medical workers may have ‘profound’ impact on health care, study suggests

When Dr. Anne Bhéreur fell ill with COVID-19 in late 2020, she didn’t anticipate just how much the infection would impact her life more than a year later.

The 46-year-old has since coped with heart inflammation, intense fatigue, and still has trouble breathing. 

Even talking is tough. While speaking slowly, often pausing for several seconds to catch her breath, Bhéreur explained how Botox injections in her vocal cord area have made it a bit easier to have a conversation — but the longer the chat, the more she struggles.

“If I push just a little, I’ll be in my bed for days, not even being able to think,” she said in an interview with CBC News outside her Montreal home.

That slate of debilitating symptoms means she still isn’t back to work as a family and palliative care physician, leaving other health-care professionals to care for her patients.

“I know how much my colleagues are struggling and overwhelmed,” she said, her voice breaking. “Everyone is exhausted.”

A recent study out of Quebec suggests plenty of other health-care workers are also grappling with life-altering long COVID impacts — which could jeopardize their ability to work while putting strain on the health-care system, researchers say.

Survey of 6,000 health-care workers 

The research, which is published online but has not yet been peer-reviewed, found a high prevalence of post-COVID health issues among health-care workers who fell ill during the pandemic’s first three waves.

Researchers surveyed 6,000 out of the more than 17,000 confirmed cases among health-care workers in Quebec between July 2020 and May 2021. This was done alongside a randomly selected control group of other health-care workers who had symptoms, but didn’t test positive for the virus.

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The researchers found 40 per cent of those who didn’t require hospitalization for their illness reported having lingering health issues after three months, along with nearly 70 per cent of those who required a hospital stay.

“With so many health-care workers infected since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing implications for quality health care delivery could be profound should cognitive dysfunction and other severe post-COVID symptoms persist in a professionally-disabling way over the longer term,” the research team wrote.

‘I’m not even able to speak’

Lead author Dr. Gaston De Serres, a medical epidemiologist at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, said many of those surveyed reported cognitive issues like memory problems, trouble concentrating, or routinely misplacing essential objects required in their work or daily life. 

“And these cognitive dysfunctions for professionals working in the health-care system could be quite important to do their duties,” he added.

Those are issues LeeAnn Daponte is now familiar with on a daily basis. A registered nurse in a Toronto-area hospital, Daponte first tested positive last September. She describes it as a moment of “total fear” as she wondered what she might’ve passed on to her young, unvaccinated children and immunocompromised husband. 

Toronto-area registered nurse LeeAnn Daponte now struggles with feelings of intense fatigue and brain fog — forgetting words mid-conversation or what she’s doing mid-task — and shortness of breath. (Supplied by LeeAnn Daponte)

But after a tough initial illness, even more unease set in when Daponte’s initial symptoms evolved into long COVID.

She now struggles with feelings of intense fatigue and brain fog — forgetting words mid-conversation or what she’s doing mid-task — and shortness of breath.

“I have returned to the emergency department, finally, after six months and multiple attempts,” she said. “But I’m not able to work longer than eight hours. My voice will go just as if I have laryngitis. So at the end of the day, I’m not even able to speak.”

‘Clear need’ for better treatments

There’s a dearth of data on exactly how many people around the world are suffering from long COVID, particularly given the lack of tests at the start of the pandemic, but most estimates suggest it happens in 10 to 30 per cent of cases — lower than the results found at the three-month mark in the Quebec study.

The symptoms for many of the health-care workers surveyed weren’t always severe, De Serres noted. The research also happened before most participants had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Still, he said the team was surprised to see such a high proportion of respondents with persistent symptoms. And there’s a “clear need” to figure out better long COVID treatments since these kinds of health impacts can affect someone’s well-b
eing and their ability to work, De Serres added.

Dr. Angela Cheung, a long COVID researcher based out of Toronto’s University Health Network, is among those working to do just that. Throughout the pandemic, she said she’s treated plenty of health-care workers, from physicians to nurses to allied health professionals, and many do start to improve over time.

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Still, like De Serres, she’s worried about the impact of long-lasting health issues in an essential workforce that’s already under strain.

“I would suggest having co-ordinated efforts across the country, having specialty clinics, so that they are looked after, but also so that we can understand it better,” she said.

Back in Montreal, Bhéreur is working hard to fully recover so she can return to caring for her patients, instead of just being one herself. 

Getting there, she knows, will take more time, since she needs to take breaks and rest up even after minor tasks like a brief walk.

“On a ward or in a clinic, this is not something I can do, or my colleagues can do, in the heat of the action,” she said.

Dr. Anne Bhéreur has been struggling with long COVID for more than a year, including heart inflammation, intense fatigue, and trouble breathing. A new study out of Quebec finds the condition was reported among many health-care workers in the province. (Hugo Lalonde/CBC News)