Virtua Health, South Jersey’s largest health system, has created an evaluation, recovery, and care coordination program for people experiencing lingering symptoms of COVID-19. Called “Care After COVID,” this cross-specialty service will address the various health challenges experienced by “long-haulers” – the term for people with persistent, possibly permanent, COVID-19 complications. The program also addresses the emotional aspects of COVID-19 recovery.
Research published in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests about 10 percent of COVID-19 patients could be classified as long haulers. Research conducted by Virtua Health – involving several hundred individuals in South Jersey who have had a COVID diagnosis – found 30 percent still experience multiple symptoms.
“I cared for COVID-19 patients in spring 2020 who are still coping with compromised health in the spring of 2021,” said Eric Sztejman, MD, a medical director for Virtua Health. “As we continue to learn more about this virus, we must continue to educate our community and connect them with services aimed to improve their quality of life.”
Richard Klein of Voorhees, N.J., is hoping to regain the good health he had before contracting COVID-19 in late December 2020. A fit, healthy lifelong runner, Klein was admitted to Virtua Voorhees Hospital with pneumonia and extremely low oxygen levels. COVID-19 had exacerbated his asthma and he spent nine days in the hospital on high-flow oxygen and intravenous steroids. The pneumonia returned one month later, but his physicians were able to treat him as an outpatient. Klein is now enrolled in Care After COVID.
“I am just now starting to feel better,” said Klein, who still suffers from shortness of breath. “In addition to all of the physical effects of the virus, I am also dealing with the emotional aspects of the disease. I have struggled with severe anxiety over the length of my illness and the uncertainty about regaining my good health going forward.”
Care After COVID provides tailored treatment plans based on an individual’s distinct set of symptoms. The goal is to more easily connect individuals to the care they need, especially when they may require multiple specialists. Whereas Klein experiences shortness of breath, other patients report body aches, coughing, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, or “brain fog” (heightened forgetfulness or confusion).
“It’s both fascinating and frustrating how wide-ranging people’s experiences with COVID-19 can be. No two patients are exactly alike,” said Angela Skrzynski, DO, of the Virtua Medical Group. “That’s why Care After COVID incorporates cardiologists, pulmonologists, neurologists, and other clinical experts – enabling us to create care plans that are specific to the individual.”
Some people experiencing persistent COVID symptoms, like Klein, benefit from emotional support as well. In response, Virtua’s team of social workers created a virtual support group that meets regularly by Zoom. A companion Facebook group keeps the conversation going in between support group sessions.
“We want to foster meaningful conversations and show our patients that they are not alone,” said Gina Pimentel, a social worker with Virtua Health. “Our aim is to help people and restore hope, so we can’t limit our focus to just physical health.”
Care After COVID is available to individuals in South Jersey and beyond who have experienced health complications 30 days or more following a COVID-19 diagnosis. Participation is not limited to existing or past Virtua Health patients. Those interested in learning more can visit virtua.org/services/care-after-covid or call 856-325-3200 to speak with a health navigator.