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Katy McLean, a COVID-19 'long-hauler' in Vancouver, on Jan. 22, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia has launched a network of three clinics offering specialized treatments for COVID-19 patients still suffering from an array of ailments months after testing positive for the virus, with researchers using evidence from this care to better understand the long-term effects of the disease.

On Friday, a group of local health authorities announced units already operating at Vancouver General Hospital and St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver have now been joined by one this week at the Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre in Surrey, still the B.C. community reporting the most new cases each day.

As the pandemic nears its first year in Canada, health authorities across the country are grappling with how to treat those patients, who refer to themselves as long haulers. Alberta has announced three similar clinics, while Ontario has one in Toronto and one in London.

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Most patients at the trio of B.C. clinics will see a doctor at the facility three months after they first feel ill and then have follow-up visits after six months and then a year. “We’re truly building this plane as we’re flying it and we haven’t reached the 12-month mark,” said Zachary Schwartz, head of the recovery clinic at Vancouver General Hospital.

Though the scientific research to date varies, Jesse Greiner, the head of St. Paul’s clinic, told The Globe and Mail that a leading study showed up to 13 per cent of patients in the United Kingdom self-reported still having symptoms a month after first getting ill. A further 4.5 per cent reported having at least one symptom a month further along, and 2.5 per cent still felt sick at 12 weeks.

In B.C., 56,455 people were listed as recovered in the province’s Friday update, which means more than 1,400 people could still be fighting coronavirus-related symptoms three months or longer after first noticing them.

Dr. Schwartz, whose clinic began seeing long haulers in November, said the most common problem among patients is serious fatigue, but many also experience insomnia, ringing in their ears, tremors or a foggy brain.

“It’s a very individual disease, and everyone has a different history and story to them which makes treatment very difficult,” he said.

For Katy McLean, a Vancouver officer manager, her current experience is comparable to her recovery from a bad concussion once suffered after she fell down the stairs. More than four months after she first tested positive for coronavirus, the 42-year-old still finds it impossible to walk more than 10 minutes at a time and has to write everything down because of short-term memory loss.

“I feel like I have a brutal hangover every day and like I’ve smoked several packs of cigarettes,” she said.

Still, she said she is feeling positive after recently reducing her work hours to 80 per cent of full time. Ms. McLean has found success managing her fatigue by setting intentional goals for each day. She said she is also incredibly grateful to live with her partner, who is a nurse.

“If I had been living alone I think I probably would have had to go live with a family member because that’s how much my function has been impaired,” she said.

Dr. Greiner, the internist who is in charge of the clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital, said the most important treatment to date has been educating people about how their activities can lead to their symptoms flaring.

Often, people experience a worsening of their ailments two to three days after they exert themselves heavily while recovering, he said. But mental and emotional stress can also kick off these bouts of bad symptoms, he added. His clinic has seen 160 patients since it opened in the fall.

“The learning that happens from doing this over and over again really just takes time ... listening to patients and really trying to hear their stories and understand what their suffering is and where it’s coming from,” Dr. Greiner said.

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