NC COVID long-haulers hopeful as access to medical treatment increases ::

— As scientists and doctors work to learn more about coronavirus, there is good news for those struggling with the virus’ long-term effects. Many who deal with the chronic illness that follows COVID-19 feel lost and without hope. But a UNC Health clinic has been able to provide answers.

“I was diagnosed July 30 of 2020,” said Ronald Rushing. Nineteen months later, he still lives with symptoms of COVID-19.

Early on, doctors told him he had to remain isolated until symptoms ceased.

“I stayed in my bedroom, away from my family from July until September,” he said.

The lack of information about the coronavirus and feeling unsupported only made his symptoms worse.

A lingering cough, a sore throat and severe headaches kept him out of work.

COVID: Two years in

“It was very challenging because we didn’t have a good understanding of what acute COVID entailed,” said John Michael Baratta, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine “long-haul” clinic.

Now, more than two years into the pandemic, health systems recognize the need for special services and clinic space.

“We were the first long-COVID clinic in the state, and one of the earliest in the southeast region,” he said.

Patients like Rushing are now able to see specialists that are educated in long-COVID and participate in rehabilitation services.

“Going to the COVID clinic has helped me to know that somebody believes me,” Rushing said.

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He’s also found solace in some of the online community groups for sufferers of long-COVID, particularly one called “Survivor Corps.”

“That site has helped me a lot, because there’s 180,000 members of people that are as miserable as I am,” Rushing said.

Baratta says there is hope for people like Rushing.

“I would say the majority of patients in our clinic, probably more than 80% of the patient, have had really considerable improvements in their condition,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rushing has been denied disability coverage and in April, he may lose his health insurance if he loses his job due to his long illness.

“It’s taken up so much of my life,” he said. “All everybody wants to do is say they’re sorry, and you say, ‘I appreciate that, but I’m sorry doesn’t cover it,'” he said.

There are 70 clinics for people with long-COVID across the country, and two are in the Triangle — one at UNC Health in Chapel Hill and another at WakeMed in Raleigh.