Claudia Hébert poses at CEPSUM sports complex in Montreal, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.

Quebec health system unprepared to handle Omicron-fuelled long COVID cases

Montrealer Claudia Hébert says she started to feel extreme fatigue and to get fevers three weeks after returning from Senegal in March 2020, with only a few months left to a complete her Université de Montréal veterinary medicine program.

Some symptoms eventually subsided, but her daily brain fog and painful migraines continued, leaving her no choice but to drop her classes.

“It was my dream as a little girl to become a veterinarian and I was about to realize it,” Hébert, 30, said in a recent interview. “Now, if someone asks me what I ate yesterday, I don’t remember anymore …. I have become disabled.”

Hébert was diagnosed in August 2021 as having long COVID, which refers to COVID-19 symptoms that persist well beyond two weeks — the time by which most people have recovered from the disease. With concerns being raised about the Omicron variant fuelling a spike in long COVID cases, health experts say Quebec does not have the resources to help people like Hébert or the many others who have survived the disease but remain seriously injured.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said last July that up to half of COVID-19 patients continued to experience symptoms 12 weeks after diagnosis. The symptoms can include memory loss, extreme fatigue, general pain, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath and anxiety.

Quebec health authorities estimate that up to two million people have been infected by the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus since December. Dr. Alain Piché, who runs a clinic for people who have persistent COVID-19 symptoms, said he worries about how many people will suffer symptoms long after they contract Omicron.

His practice in Sherbrooke, Que., is one of three government-run clinics in the province for people suffering from long COVID.

“It greatly exceeds the already weakened capacity of our health-care system,” Piché said about the potential number of long COVID patients who caught the virus during the Omicron wave. The waiting list for his clinic grows every day, he added.

Dr. Émilia Liana Falcone, an infectious disease specialist and the director of a COVID-19 clinic at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, says it will take another 12 weeks to appreciate the extent of patients who have long COVID from Omicron.

“Then, we’ll know if the health-care system will be able to sustain it and what kind of numbers we’ll be looking at for long COVID complications,” she said.

Dr. Laura Caspin and Dr. Audrey Ouaknine work at a COVID-19 clinic north of Montreal. They say the services offered in the province for people with persistent COVID-19 symptoms don’t come close to meeting demand.

“If the management of long COVID and the available services are still limited like they are today, it’s gonna go on forever,” Ouaknine said in a recent interview.

Caspin said it’s disappointing that two years into the pandemic, patients are being forced to go online to get information about their conditions.

“The health-care system is still overwhelmed, focusing on so much else … this is something that everybody really needs to be informed (about), but it’s pushed to the side.”

Aside from long COVID patients, there are many people across the province who have been injured by the disease. Those patients include people who have been in intensive care and need speech therapy, or they include patients who have suffered severe lung or heart damage. These people, Piché said, will need specialized care for years and they will put an enormous strain on a health-care system already stretched to the limit.

The Health Department did not give details about its plan to help people with persistent symptoms. “A reorganization of services will soon be deployed to help people with long COVID; details regarding the deployment of new multidisciplinary clinics will be announced in due course,” Health Department spokeswoman Marie-Hélène Émond said in a recent email.