In our continuing coverage of the rapidly-growing Long COVID health crisis in the United States – with an estimated 22 million people currently suffering from the disease and many more expected to join their ranks as the federal government warns that 100 million more Americans are expected to contract SARS-COV-2 in coming months – we caught up with Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, one of the nation’s leading Long COVID experts, to ask her a few questions.
Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez is an accomplished academic, physiatrist, professor, and Chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. She was previously the Medical Director of the Brain Injury and Stroke Program at a top-three US News and World Report Best Hospital for Rehabilitation.
Dr. Gutierrez grew up in South Texas, then moved to Houston where she earned her undergraduate degree at Rice University. She received her medical degree at Baylor College of Medicine and completed her PM&R residency training at the Baylor College of Medicine-UT Houston Rehabilitation Alliance. In 2020, she excitedly moved to San Antonio to lead the distinguished Department of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Her area of clinical expertise is in the care of patients with traumatic brain injury, stroke rehabilitation, and interventional spasticity management. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she developed a Post-COVID Recovery Clinic to aid in the rehabilitative recovery of patients with functional, mobility, and cognitive deficits after infection with coronavirus.
What would you most like Latinas to understand about Long Covid?
Long COVID can occur to anyone. Just because you had a mild case of COVID (even if you are vaccinated), you can still have it and it can wreak havoc on many body systems.
It’s important to know that if you are having prolonged or new symptoms, that you get seen by your physician. You know your body better than anyone. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
How has your practice changed due to Long COVID?
Before COVID, I cared for people who needed neurologic rehabilitation (such as those with brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, autoimmune diseases, dysautonomia, and other neurological conditions). As a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician, I am accustomed to treating the whole person and developing a team-oriented treatment plan for physical, cognitive, mental, and vocational problems. I run two Long COVID clinics now with the same mindset of finding strategies to look at the whole person and improve quality of life – even if we don’t have a cure or good treatment right now.
What are the most common symptoms you see among Long COVID patients, and what do you think is causing them?
The most common symptoms of the post acute sequela of Covid (PASC) are fatigue, pain/body aches, headache/migraine, sleep disturbance, shortness of breath, attention disorder, loss of words/memory issues, hair loss, diarrhea, heart rate instability, exercise intolerance, and more than 50 other symptoms.
While they are still researching exact causes, we know it is related to a disrupted immune system, inflammation, and nervous system dysfunction.
What are some cultural or social barriers to Long COVID awareness and care in Latinx communities, and how can we address them?
There are already considerable health disparities that are unique to the Latino/x population even prior to the pandemic inclusive of lower access to health care and rehabilitation. Though the US Latino/x population is younger, there has been a higher burden of COVID-19 in our population. This can mean a higher number of those in our community being impacted by Long COVID who may not have the knowledge or resources to get medical help. There needs to be culturally and linguistically appropriate interventions and education, inclusive of what is in the media and social media. There needs to be access to Long COVID clinics for those who are uninsured and underinsured as well.
What is giving you hope in the face of the growing legions of Long COVID patients?
The patients with Long COVID are amazing and strong. They have been instrumental in helping clinicians and researchers. They lead their own research, advocate for themselves with government agencies and legislators, and share strategies through support groups and social media. I learn so much from the Long COVID community.