Long COVID clinic sees surge in patients

Doctors who set up London’s first fully operational long COVID clinic are seeing a surge in patients as more people report symptoms.

Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals Trust serves some of the communities hardest hit by the virus and the areas became known as the COVID triangle after consistently recording the highest COVID infection rates in the country at the beginning of the year.

The clinic, based at King George Hospital in Ilford, is predominantly still catering for people who were ill during the first wave of the pandemic and patients are aged 18 to 80.

Dr Adam Ainley started leading a respiratory post-COVID clinic in July 2020, originally seeing people between six and 12 weeks after their discharge from hospital.

Last month the clinic started accepting referrals from GPs and is now looking after many patients who were not unwell enough to enter hospital when they caught the virus but are still suffering from symptoms including breathing difficulties, mental health problems, hair loss, fatigue and aches and pains.

Dr Ainley warned that the clinic, which was set up with the North East London Foundation Trust (NELFT), had already gone from receiving five referrals a week in February to 20 to 30 this month.

General physicians, phycologists, respiratory specialists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists have now been employed at the clinic, where therapies include singing lessons to help retrain breathing.

Dr Ainley said: “Everyone is becoming greatly aware that there are a lot of patients who are still experiencing symptoms a long time after their onset of acute illness. It is recognised that this is becoming a big problem to the health community so we have established the clinic to help support them with their ongoing recovery as best we can.”

In October NHS England announced £10million of funding for the setup of “Long COVID clinics” at hospital trusts across the county.

Neuropsychologist Kendra Shaw

About one in five coronavirus patients suffer debilitating symptoms of Long COVID for five weeks or more. One in 10 are ill for 12 weeks or longer, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Neuropsychologist Kendra Shaw said: “The majority of the patients we are seeing are usually reporting low mood, anxiety and some post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and what they term as brain fog, which seems to be this fuzziness around thinking.

Unsurprisingly those who have been in ICU will tend to endorse more symptoms of PTSD.

“There is also sometimes survivor guilt they talk about: asking why did I survive this ordeal when a close relative passed away? We are seeing in those group of patients higher levels of trauma.”

Gianfranco Quintana, 56, has been coming to the clinic for several weeks after surviving almost three months in hospital with coronavirus last year.

Gianfranco Quintana

He lost six stone and almost died three times while in intensive care in April. He now walks with a stick and is rebuilding his muscle mass.

“My foot drops and I have to use a stick,” he said. “I can’t feel my foot. We are doing a lot of physiotherapy to sort it but I know it is going to take a long time.”

Physiotherapist Jane Clark added: “We are still in the early days and we are still seeing a lot of the first wave [patients] coming in at the moment. For the moment we are finding that a lot of the treatment is trying to re-educate the breathing, trying to get them to use the bottom of the lungs.

“Our occupational therapist has got us in with some singing groups as well and that has been really useful in trying to retrain the breathing.”

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Rachael Burford

Local Democracy Reporter