As Covid-19 cases across Surrey continue to fall, First Community Health and Care is preparing for an increased demand for its Long Covid rehab service.
Since its launch at the end of December, more than 80 patients have been referred to the Long Covid rehab clinic pathway, with many suffering persistent symptoms including continued coughs, shortness of breath, fatigue and a limited tolerance to exercise, months after having Covid-19.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published data in December estimating one in 10 people experience ‘Long Covid’ – continuing to suffer with related symptoms for 12 weeks or longer post infection.
Patient recovery has seen some people being treated by specialists including respiratory physicians, while others have been referred for treatment such as pulmonary rehab, which includes exercise training and breathing techniques, or for fatigue management.
Although some patients need ongoing treatment to aid their recovery, others have been able to be discharged quickly, with access to supportive self-management resources such as the online NHS’ Your Recovery programme or talking therapies programmes.
Janet Clark, service manager for Long Term Condition Support Services, said: “Demand for Long Covid rehabilitation is steadily increasing; most of our patients were unwell last year and many have been struggling to fully recover for months.”
Steve, 63, was initially referred after suffering with continued fatigue, headaches, tinnitus and breathing difficulties months after having Covid-19 last March. He was initially referred for fatigue management, after everyday tasks like walking up the stairs and cooking left him shattered.
“The symptoms continued for months and used to come in waves. I would have really good days where I would maybe spend an hour at my allotment, but then would be completely knocked out by doing so. I felt embarrassed about seeking the help to begin with as I knew there were a lot of people in worse positions than me.”
As a keen cyclist and walker eager to return to regular exercise, Steve says it was helpful to be given tips and advice to help manage his breathing, and talking to someone with a medical background helped him to understand how much to push to increase his breathing to a point that would be beneficial to his recovery.
“I was very frustrated as I’m not good at sitting at home, but the one to one guidance was very helpful and it was good to know how much I should be doing. I have made a huge amount of progress and although my chest is still not right, I can now go about my life in a pretty normal way. It’s great that there is a team out there that can help those with residual problems after having Covid-19 recover,” he said.
The multi-disciplinary Long Covid rehab team, which includes stroke, respiratory, physiotherapy specialists, also continue to provide vital support to patients as they are discharged from hospital as part of the Covid rehab pathway launched last May. From its launch in May 2020 to the end of January 2021, 196 referrals had been made to the service.
The team have adopted the Covid rehab pathway’s individualised approach to patients for the Long Covid rehab service, which enables all specialist treatment options to be considered for each patient from the start.
“This is increasingly important because we are finding that there is no one type of person being affected by one typical type of problem when it comes to Long Covid,” said Janet. “We are now starting to see a lot of younger patients, those that are 29, 30, 34 years of age, that have had the virus and not necessarily gone to their GP at the onset of their problems, but months later are still experiencing difficulty.”
Phoebe was referred to the Long Covid rehabilitation service by her GP in January, after catching Covid-19 last November. The 24-year-old, who is currently the youngest patient on the pathway, experienced symptoms including migraines, severe chest pains and breathlessness after testing positive and continues to experience chest pain and breathlessness three months later.
“I had been really careful because I was going into people’s homes, so I was wearing a mask but still caught Covid-19. I ended up having two months off work and lost a lot of muscle that I had to rebuild. I am a plumber and my job is quite physical, but I’ve been taught breathing techniques to use when doing things like lifting tools and walking upstairs, which I now have to remember to do but came naturally pre-Covid.
“The Long Covid rehabilitation has helped me get back into it slowly. I had a phased return to work, but I’ve been referred to see a respiratory specialist next month and my treatment is ongoing. I think it’s really important to raise awareness of the virus’ effects on young people. People think if you are young you won’t die from Covid-19 and you might not, but it’s having to live with the effects of it for the months after that is challenging.”
With knowledge and learning about the long term effects of Covid-19 continuing to develop, Janet says she anticipates there will be an ongoing need for this type of support.
“We are really proud of the work we are doing as a team and with our partners, to provide this kind of help and rehabilitation to those in need,” she added. “I’d encourage anyone struggling with their recovery after having Covid-19 to speak to their GP, who can assess, advise and refer them to the Long Covid pathway if appropriate. You may have a wait due to the demand on the service and community services as a whole at present, but we will see you, and will do all we can to support you in your recovery.”