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As respiratory illnesses surge nationally, Texas doctors are worried about long COVID

Physicians across the country and in Texas encourage patients to monitor their recovery after having a case of COVID-19. Long COVID can include pulmonary, respiratory, and even neurological symptoms.
David Goldman
/
AP
Physicians across the country and in Texas encourage patients to monitor their recovery after having a case of COVID-19. Long COVID can include pulmonary, respiratory, and even neurological symptoms.

The winter holidays brought about a national surge in respiratory illnesses, like RSV, COVID-19 and the flu. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Texas, along with 20 other states, has a “very high” level of respiratory illness activity.

While many people recover from COVID-19, more than a quarter of Texans who contracted the virus have experienced long COVID, according to data from the CDC. Long COVID is the name for the physical and neurological symptoms that stick around after recovering from the virus.

Doctors who treat COVID-19 locally, like physicians at UT Health Austin’s Post-COVID-19 Program and UT Southwestern Medical Center’s COVID Recover program, are still helping people months and even years after they’ve been infected.

Dr. Surendra Barshikar, an associate professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center and the medical director for the center’s COVID Recover Program, said about two-thirds of patients seen in the clinic for long COVID had “very mild disease.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you had mild, moderate or severe disease, there’s still a chance of having long COVID,” he said. “In fact, [a] majority of long COVID patients were never hospitalized. Though the severity of acute disease has significantly lowered, you can still develop long COVID.”

According to a 2024 study by researchers from multiple states, including UT Austin, people who are female, were hospitalized for a longer period of time for COVID, and people with risk factors like “chronic heart, lung or neurologic disease” were at higher risk of developing long COVID. Risk factors included things like mental health conditions, hypertension, and asthma.

An empty exam room Friday, July 7, 2023, at LBU Community Clinic.
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
An empty exam room Friday, July 7, 2023, at LBU Community Clinic.

Symptoms of long COVID often include fatigue, forgetfulness or brain fog, and difficulty concentrating, which can make treating the disease complicated.

“Initially, we were completely clueless,” said Barshikar. “But I think over [the] years, we’ve learned a little more, we know a little more, and I think we at least know how to manage some of the symptoms.”

Director of UT Health Austin’s Post-COVID-19 Program Dr. Michael Brode said when patients present with long COVID, he encourages them to slow down.

“We’re seeing in the research over and over the more they try to push through and exert themselves, the worse they feel,” he said. “We’re seeing that even on a cellular level their body doesn’t have the energy it needs.”

Dr. Esther Melamed, the director of research for the Post-COVID-19 Program, said people’s chances at developing long COVID increase the more times they’ve had the virus.

“While we’re still learning how to treat long COVID, the best way to treat it is really to prevent it,” she said.

She encourages people to stay up to date on vaccinations for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses like the flu, as that prevents people from developing worse symptoms in the future.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org

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Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Elena Rivera