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Kansas City Doctor Leads Nationwide Study on Long COVID

'Now, we have to deal with the aftermath'

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Above image credit: A new clinical trial study aims to learn why some adults infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus develop long COVID and why others don't. (Canva)

A new nationwide study is recruiting 17,000 adults to investigate the effects of long COVID. One of the sites is Kansas City. 

The principal investigator is critical care physician Dr. Mario Castro, a pulmonologist at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He’s been on the frontlines of the pandemic in Kansas City. For the past two-plus years, Castro has been treating patients who, once infected with COVID, exhibited new and lingering symptoms and illnesses after they should have recovered. 

As with so many things since the start of the ever-evolving pandemic, he said, physicians have been unsure what to do to deal with long COVID. 

Dr. Mario Castro is a pulmonologist at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
Dr. Mario Castro is a pulmonologist at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. (Courtesy: KUMC)

“We’re seeing the consequences of this COVID infection and the impact that has on our body. Now, we have to deal with the aftermath,” he said. “That’s scary to us as providers. We are exhausted.”

Castro thought back to the beginning of the pandemic, when health care providers saw rates of critically ill patients like never before. 

“We never want to be in that situation again,” Castro said. 

His hope is that through this study, they’ll be able to help folks heal quicker and provide a template of care for future cases. Doctors and nurses have been “perplexed,” he said, as patients manifest symptoms they’d never seen before. It’s frustrating when physicians like him lack the appropriate therapies for their patients, he added.  

According to his staff’s observations, nearly 30% of patients recovering from acute infection brought on by the virus develop one or several of a long list of symptoms. Long COVID patients report shortness of breath, problems with brain fog, memory issues, not being able to taste or smell, or persistent problems with fatigue.

Ultimately, (we’re) trying to decrease the disability that we’re seeing from COVID.

Dr. Mario Castro, University of Kansas School of Medicine

This isn’t just affecting folks with underlying health conditions or the older population. Castro has had patients who are 20 to 30 years old who are unable to get back to work because of the long lasting effects of the virus. Although, recent studies have raised a red flag about cases among children and teens, the study Castro is leading is enrolling adults 18 years old and older. 

“For them to lose their ability to work in (and) to contribute to society, that’s disheartening. That’s going to impact us for decades to come,” he added. “We need to figure this out.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long COVID or post-COVID conditions can emerge then persist for four or more weeks, even months. 

The long COVID study is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, part of its Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative. As a RECOVER participant, KUMC was awarded $1 million. 

It will run for four years to follow each of the participants. According to the news release, the University of Kansas Medical Center is part of the IDeA States Consortium for Clinical Research (ISCORE), “a network of 11 states that helps ensure diversity in medical research funding.” 

Specifically, this effort will include research in tribal nations, rural communities and among minoritized racial groups. 

Castro added: “We really want to understand … the impact on all populations. Are there certain populations that react differently to COVID than others? Do we need to approach them differently? Ultimately, (we’re) trying to decrease the disability that we’re seeing from COVID.”

As of July 2021, long COVID is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A guidance document by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice outlines how: 

“Long COVID can be a disability under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557 if it substantially limits one or more major life activities.”  

This is why Dr. Castro wants to get the study underway and enroll as many people as possible. Helping folks is part of his personal mission. 

Castro’s family emigrated from Cuba to Kansas City. It was his uncle, a pediatrician, who first introduced him to the ethos of the medical field — helping those who were ill. 

“I learned from him what he could potentially do to help out children (in Topeka),” he said. “That stirred my passion, early when I was a little youngster.”

It’s also meaningful to be able to help his Spanish-speaking patients. He recalled one 80-year-old patient he treated recently who was affected by COVID.

“She’s a little anciana … and being able to speak to her in Spanish, her eyes light up and say, ‘Oh? Hablas Español, Doctor Castro.’ I mean, that’s very rewarding.”

Doing this work in Kansas City is also homecoming for him. 

In 2020, he returned to the Kansas City area after being away for 30 years. For 25-plus years, he led 30 clinical trials at the Washington University School of Medicine and served as the Chief of the Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine Division of the Department of Internal Medicine. 

But Kansas City is home.

When he was hired, it was to lead studies like this one that aim to repair the gaps illuminated during the height of the crisis and strengthen the medical field to keep communities healthy. 

“Research gets us ahead of a crisis,” Castro said. “Everybody out there has something to contribute. (To) our volunteers in our studies, I thank them.”

To enroll in this free study, click here. You’ll need only to share basic contact information.  

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