As COVID-19 cases on Long Island experience a downward trend, there are still concerns lingering as we enter the colder season. I sat down with Sritha Rajupet, Director of Stony Brook Medicine’s Post-COVID Clinic, where she works with COVID-19 patients, particularly those experiencing long COVID symptoms.
What has your experience been like working in the Stony Brook Medicine Post-COVID Clinic?
It’s been wonderful. Since its inception, I’ve had the opportunity to design the clinic in a way that I thought would be most helpful for our patients. Our clinic is modeled after the World Trade Center Health Program. Essentially, it’s a longitudinal cohort, and our focus is on patient-centered care. We bring resources to the patients, whether that’s clinical care, research information, mental health services, etc. to provide that holistic approach.
Is long COVID serious in the patients that you see?
Long COVID is now considered a new chronic illness. Approximately one in 13 people who have had COVID-19 will go on to develop long COVID symptoms. There are over 100 different symptoms that are associated with long COVID, and there’s still a lot we need to learn about it. With approximately 50% of patients having at least one long COVID symptom six months after their original diagnosis, this can have a significant impact on their physical and mental well-being. From a severity standpoint, there are a lot of people suffering, and there definitely needs to be more attention in this area.
What are some patterns that you’re seeing in these patients?
In long COVID patients as a whole, we see symptoms that typically wax and wane, meaning that they feel better for a period of time and then they feel worse. Usually, that’s triggered by another illness or an exacerbation of underlying medical conditions. The other thing we’ll often see are the most common symptoms associated with long COVID, which have been documented nationally and include shortness of breath, fatigue and body aches and pains.
Are the patients you’re working with dealing with COVID-19 variants that we saw in 2020 or are they different?
I have a mix of patients, many of whom had COVID-19 in March of 2020 and the strains associated with that time, and I’ve seen patients who’ve had long COVID symptoms with the later variants as well. National studies show that we are seeing fewer long COVID symptoms with the newer variants, but that could change as they evolve.
Why are we seeing less concern for long COVID with the newer variants?
For now, at least, it’s possible because we’ve had more vaccinations and awareness around COVID-19 prevention. So, there is a degree of natural immunity in the community that may reduce the severity of symptoms as a result. We see that the more severe your COVID-19 symptoms, the more likely you are to develop long COVID.
Do you believe COVID-19 is still a prevalent health issue, considering the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that it’s no longer a global health emergency?
It’s no longer a global health emergency, however, the virus hasn’t disappeared and continues to be present. For our most vulnerable populations, or perhaps those who may not be vaccinated or updated with their latest vaccines, it can cause significant morbidity and mortality.
What do you think is the community’s perception of these new COVID-19 booster shots that are coming out?
There’s always been a degree of vaccine hesitancy. Individuals who have been comfortable getting the vaccine have continued to do so based on the recommended guidelines. For those who have had some hesitancy, whether from vaccine hesitancy as a whole, reactions to medications or exacerbation of underlying conditions, that is an individual choice. It’s a difficult choice to make, and there are no right answers. People have to weigh the risks and benefits based on their medical conditions and current situations.
What would you recommend for people living in Suffolk County to protect themselves from illnesses as we enter the colder seasons?
Last winter, they called it the tripledemic. Between RSV, COVID-19 and the flu, the protection against all three has always been the use of masks, hand washing appropriately, social distancing when possible and appropriate vaccinations. If there are any questions around that, it’s really important to speak to your doctor about any questions that you have. I’ve always encouraged my patients to bring in any material that they read or videos they watch, whether that’s TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, etc., so we can watch them together, read the articles together and have a shared decision-making discussion.
What has your experience been like with patients who bring in information they’ve seen on social media?
I love it because it’s an opportunity to have a real discussion. I wouldn’t want to just be lecturing someone, and if this is where they’re getting their information, I should meet them where they’re at. That way, we can listen to the information or read it together, and talk about it. Then we can look at articles that may be in favor or against the information they found.
Do you think that COVID-19 is going to be a part of our future?
Coronaviruses have been around for a very long time. COVID-19 mutated to such a form that it resulted in the pandemic. The Spanish Flu of 1918 caused significant mortality, and after all these years, the flu hasn’t gone away. Instead, our bodies adapt as these viruses remain endemic within our society, and I feel that will be the case for COVID-19 as well.