Hospital receives grant for long COVID research

As coronavirus case counts continue to decline — now at a 0.4% positivity rate in Los Angeles County — mask mandates are lifted and testing subsides, researchers have turned their focus to the potential long-term effects of the pandemic. Physicians across the country are now paying more attention to “post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2” or “PASC,” more commonly referred to as ”Long COVID.”  

Local USC-affiliated Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is one of more than 30 nationwide medical institutions working in partnership with the Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery study. After the National Institute of Health awarded CHLA 8.3 million dollars in January, researchers at CHLA have directed their sights on the long-term effects of the coronavirus in youth and adolescence. 

Set to run over the next four years, the RECOVER observational study looks to track patients after their initial visit in 2022 until 2026. CHLA plans to enroll 20,000 patients, including adults, pregnant women and children under the age of 25. The study will track both patients who have and have not contracted the coronavirus. While CHLA’s pediatric emphasis limits those able to participate, “the study is open to all ages” nationwide.

Dr. John Wood, a professor of pediatrics and radiology and co-principal investigator for the RECOVER study, stressed the importance of diversity in the study not only at CHLA but nationally.

“It’s really imperative that we get complete representation,” Wood said. “Especially among those who have been in communities that have been hardest hit by COVID.”

Once admitted, the participants will undergo three stages depending on the degree of their symptoms. Level one will include telemedicine appointments and blood sampling, level two an in-depth extension of level one and level three MRIs, and other investigative forms of screening.  

The goals of the RECOVER’s study include understanding “the long term consequences, who are the people who are at risk for these long term consequences, and how to address those [people],” said Dr. Sindhu Mohandas, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Keck School of Medicine and co-principal investigator. Mohandas also said she hopes the new study will “define the exact of the prevalence of [Long COVID],” as previously conducted studies included contraction rates ranging from 10% to 50% after a patient initially caught the virus. 

The “consequences” and contraction rate of Long COVID remain unclear and difficult to diagnose, Mohandas said.

“We don’t know how long [the effects are] lasting or whether they could even be progressive,” Wood said.

Dr. David Warburton, a professor of pediatrics and principal investigator of the study, said effects can develop in the brain, kidneys, heart and vascular systems. One particularly pressing result included chronic exhaustion in teenagers, specifically young women who previously contracted the coronavirus. 

“The classic profile is the straight A’s student who’s captain of the soccer team and now can’t get off the couch.” Warburton said, “These kids are not making it up.” 

Wood, also the director of cardiovascular MRI at CHLA, expressed concern over early “damage to the heart” in children, damage that is, at times, permanent.

“On the one hand, kids are generally better at repairing themselves than older folks at the same time,” Wood said. “ They’ve got an entire life to lead, so they really can’t afford to be burning their reserves either.”

Although Warburton described the current treatment as “supportive,” he said he anticipates the results of the study can help devise and guide future studies on treatments and medication.

“At the moment, it’s really supportive care, letting them know they’re not crazy, and that this is a real thing,” he said.

All three doctors underscored the importance of getting and staying up to date with vaccines and following local regulations.

“The best way of preventing long COVID is to prevent COVID,” Mohandas said. “If you don’t get COVID infection, you’re not going to get Long COVID.”