7.5% of American population struggles with long COVID – Aspen Daily News

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Dr. David Putrino sits at a picnic table at the Aspen Institute campus on Thursday afternoon, hours after giving a talk about his research on long COVID as part of Aspen Ideas: Health programming. 

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Dr. David Putrino sits at a picnic table at the Aspen Institute campus on Thursday afternoon, hours after giving a talk about his research on long COVID as part of Aspen Ideas: Health programming. 
David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation of Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, was in the middle of giving his talk at the Aspen Ideas: Health program Thursday morning when the news broke: Roughly 7.5% of the American population is struggling with long COVID, or lingering COVID-19.
“That was actually while my talk was happening — those data were released,” Putrino said in an interview Thursday afternoon.
Putrino’s work has made him an expert on the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that shook the world in March 2020. By trade, he’s a physical therapist with a doctorate in neuroscience. His research focuses on identifying solutions to allow better access to health care from a technological perspective, so when the pandemic hit, Putrino was uniquely positioned to pivot his work to COVID.
“I’m always running pragmatic clinical trials on new technologies and trying to integrate those technologies into practice — so not just stopping at, ‘We did a clinical trial and we published it, and it was great,’ but actually then working with the inventors of the technology and working with the hospital system to find ways to make sure that patients get access to the tech,” he said. “Which is a step that I think is just often missed in a lot of conventional research experiences.”
With that emphasis on user care — and therefore interaction with actual patients — Putrino and his colleagues realized they already had an infrastructure built that could lend itself well to studying COVID-19 in real time.
“We were sort of sitting in New York, watching it all unfold, and my team was doing a large number of remote patient monitoring programs,” Putrino recalled. “So we quickly took one of the apps that we had actually developed ourselves for monitoring one condition, and we made it more relevant to monitoring COVID. And we just put out a blast on social media and everything saying, listen, if you’re having COVID symptoms and you’re in New York, text this number. We’ll show you how to download the app, and we’ll track you every single day so there’s a clinician watching you.”
Putrino’s first patient came on board March 15, and he and his team were soon monitoring thousands of patients. By April, however, they noticed a growing trend: Some people weren’t leaving the app — they were continuing to experience symptoms long past researchers’ expectations.
“There was a group that weren’t recovering,” Putrino said. “They were reporting new symptoms. They were saying, ‘Look, I’ve got heart palpitations and fatigue and cognitive impairment … all these different things.’”
At that point, about 15% of the patients using Putrino’s app were experiencing what has since become known as long COVID. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that of Americans who tested positive for COVID-19, approximately 20% became “long haulers.”
“Which is a staggering number,” Putrino said.
In Pitkin County, the number of COVID-19 patients who struggled with long-term symptoms was even higher — public health officials estimated that, based on survey results, about half of patients who tested positive between March and August 2020 reported at least one symptom that lingered six months.
Putrino said that there has not been official research into any correlation between long COVID and higher altitude, though he did say that the effects of altitude on the body’s systems is well-known, and that otherwise unnoticeable or mild long COVID symptoms may become agitated at higher elevation.
Putrino’s research has shown that there is a significant number of people still struggling with long COVID who may not even consciously know it.
“What we noticed was, as we were screening these patients, we were losing about half of our patients who self-identified … saying, ‘I had COVID; I am fully recovered,’” Putrino said.
For those patients who had determined for themselves that they had overcome COVID-19, his team asked that they undertake a screening exam for research purposes.
“And they would fail the screen,” Putrino continued. “They would fail the screen in contrast to our other control group, which was individuals who had never had COVID. We’d give them the screening exam, and they’d pass with flying colors.”
Putrino’s conclusion?
“I think we may have more people with long COVID symptoms than we think,” he said.
And there’s still much work to be done, not only in properly identifying and diagnosing patients still suffering with long COVID, but also in treating them. The latter is still a long way off, Putrino said. Looking at it through a data-driven lens, knowing intimately the National Institute of Health’s processes and propensity for incremental research, he estimates that a medical treatment for long COVID could be 17 years or more off.
“That is the current bench-to-bedside research,” he said of the timeframe.
Yet he remains optimistic. The pandemic created a global sense of urgency and a willingness for entities to share research and resources in the name of expediency.
“There are many organizations stepping up and understanding that the NIH is not moving at a pace that is aligned with a fast cure,” he said. “It’s just a fact. I hope that we’re three to five years away from a breakthrough.”
Until that happens, however — and happens in a meaningful way, in which all patients of all demographics have meaningful access to care — Putrino is the bearer of bad news: We are still in a pandemic.
In fact, he didn’t actually want to come to Aspen for the Ideas Festival at all, but he views the other part of his job as one rooted in advocacy, and he felt that he needed to speak on behalf of those whose health is too compromised to speak in person for themselves about their experiences.
“I’m not saying that with any level of judgment for others — we all have to modulate and modify our own risk,” Putrino said. “But … I happen to know that one individual with long COVID was invited to speak, and they declined because they didn’t feel that they could take the risk.”
So, still donning a mask indoors, Putrino tempered his trepidation and accepted his invitation to Aspen.
“That’s what I think being an ally to a chronically disabled community means,” he said.
Megan Tackett is the editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.
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