Respiratory Illness Follow-up Clinic treats patients with long-term complications from COVID-19

With over 60,000 Iowans testing positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, there is a growing need for specialized follow-up care for a subset of patients experiencing long-term effects from the disease. In June, UI Health Care became the first health system in the state, and one of the first in the country, to establish a dedicated post-COVID-19 clinic.

The Respiratory Illness Follow-Up Clinic serves as a statewide resource to proactively identify and treat those with lingering symptoms from COVID-19. While many patients with COVID-19 fully recover after experiencing initial symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath, some experience long-term effects from systemic inflammation caused by the disease. This can lead to damage to the heart, lungs, and kidneys, as well as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and other neurological problems.

We have been surprised by a lot of aspects of COVID-19, and it appears that in some cases recovery is complicated by unexpected after-effects. Of particular note to us are the lung issues that may arise from this disease, which may need to be monitored and treated for months or, perhaps, even years after recovery.

Already evidence is showing that COVID-19 may cause pulmonary scarring, myocardial damage, decreased ejection fractions of the heart, and sometimes large and small arterial and venous occlusions. The result is ongoing symptoms that may manifest as a persistent dry cough, chronic fatigue, or decreased cardiopulmonary fitness.

“We have a strong suspicion that these long-term symptoms, which patients may experience four to six weeks after diagnosis, might be indicative of a more serious inflammatory airway disease that needs to be aggressively treated,” Comellas explains.

Comellas, who specializes in the treatment of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), serves as medical director of the Respiratory Illness Follow-up Clinic. He plans to establish a pulmonary registry of voluntary post-COVID-19 patients to better identify and track long-term effects of the disease and evaluate promising therapeutics.

“Our goal with the establishment of this clinic is to truly raise awareness among physicians and the community that there can be serious long-term effects of COVID-19 that must be addressed,” says Comellas. “If patients still have abnormal lung function or if any scans show signs of airway disease or inflammation similar to obstructive lung disease, they should be seen by someone in our Respiratory Illness Follow-Up Clinic, where they can be evaluated by a pulmonologist and have access to some of the latest therapies available to combat these after-effects.”

Referring physicians can refer patients age 18+ suspected of lingering COVID-19 pulmonary complications. Self-referrals are accepted from adult patients who have a lab-confirmed COVID-19 positive PCR test, and who have recovered but are still experiencing ongoing abnormal lung function/breathing problems.

What services are available?

  • Computed Tomography (CT) scan on the chest
  • Full Pulmonary Function Tests (PFTs)
  • Blood work
  • Assessment by a certified pulmonologist
  • Post-COVID-19 Registry (voluntary)
  • Referrals to cardiology and physical therapy as needed
  • Spanish-speaking consultations available