Clinics pop up to treat long-haulers’ lingering COVID-19 symptoms

"Long COVID" clinics are likely to become an enduring legacy of the disease.

As the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations accelerates, millions of Americans are planning for life after the pandemic. But for people with lingering symptoms — patients known as “long-haulers” — that day may never come.

Now, clinics are springing up across the country with a mandate to study the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and treat people who suffer from symptoms that include memory loss, overwhelming fatigue and difficulty breathing.

The creation of clinics devoted entirely to helping those who have not fully recovered from COVID-19 is likely to become one of the enduring legacies of a disease that’s killed more than half a million people in the U.S.

“While I’m very hopeful that the number of ‘Long COVID’ patients decreases dramatically over time, I do expect that there will be a smaller subset of people that continues to have some lingering issues over the next few years,” Benjamin Abramoff, director of Penn Medicine’s Post-COVID Assessment and Recovery Clinic, told ABC News.

Dr. Georgia Lea, a neurologist who lives in New Orleans, counts herself among the unlucky Americans who suffer from lingering symptoms of the virus.

In June of last year, Lea started feeling the symptoms of COVID-19 exposure. So she took what she believed would be a short break from her busy hospital practice.

A few weeks later, Lea tried to return to work, and even started seeing patients via telemedicine.

“I thought I should be better,” she said. But instead, she found herself overwhelmed by fatigue.

“It was becoming very difficult to see patients and do charting, and stay awake,” she said.

“I thought I should be better,” she said. But instead, she found herself overwhelmed by fatigue.

“It was becoming very difficult to see patients and do charting, and stay awake,” she said.

Lea’s condition is not unique. While the majority of people fully recover after contracting COVID-19, studies indicate that up to a third of people who test positive for COVID-19 may develop Long COVID.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the symptoms of Long COVID, which the NIH calls “Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” or PASC, can vary. PASC is not a “syndrome,” which indicates a collection of symptoms or physical findings due to a single disease, says Dr. Jerry Krishnan, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System in Chicago.

“PASC is most likely several different diseases, depending on the type of virus that caused COVID, our body’s ability to fight the infection, and the social determinants of health,” Krishnan told ABC News. The social determinants of health — the conditions under which people are born, grow, live, work and age — can affect health outcomes, he said.

Symptoms of Long COVID often include fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, sleep disorders, fevers, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety and depression. Sometimes the symptoms are mild; in other cases, as Dr. Lea discovered, they can be incapacitating.