Calgary therapy program providing support, therapy to help long-term COVID-19 sufferers

As of Saturday, there have been more than 179,000 Albertans who have recovered from COVID-19, but among that group, thousands of people are believed to be feeling the after-effects of the virus.

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It’s called long COVID, and the long-term effect is something that’s becoming more prevalent, according to Calgary physiotherapist Jessica DeMars, who runs Breathe Well Physio.

“Long COVID is essentially the terminology that we’re using for people’s symptoms who haven’t gone away… 10 to 30 per cent of people are experiencing symptoms longer than 12 weeks, and many are experiencing symptoms now for a year,” she said, adding some of her clients are now 14 months into experiencing disabling symptoms.

“They’re struggling to do activities of daily living, so whether that’s showering or cleaning your house or preparing meals, they aren’t able to do any of those, essentially,” DeMars said.

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Included in that group is Anna Mae Alexander, who contracted the virus in December 2020.

Almost six months later, Alexander said simple activities have become difficult to finish. In addition, she tires easily and has difficulty breathing.

“I’m still coughing a lot. I get short of breath. I’m having a different breathing pattern than I ever did… Five months later, I still feel like crap,” she said.

“I used to be able to do an hour on my exercise bike every day, and now, it’s about five minutes.”

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Alexander is part of the therapy group run by DeMars and said it’s helped her manage her symptoms.

The “Breathe Speak Pace” program is virtual and addresses breathing patterns and offers solutions to help manage them.

“What we’re trying to do is address any breathing pattern disorders. Sometimes what happens, especially with a respiratory infection, is that we have people breathing essentially inefficiently, so they might be breathing too quickly, they might be breathing really shallowly, and that can contribute to breathlessness, so we’ll for sure be addressing any of that with some breathing retraining strategies,” DeMars said.

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“(We’re) just trying to redevelop a normal breathing pattern.”

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DeMars is expanding the virtual program to include more people, hoping to get the message out about the dangers of long COVID-19.

“There’s generally a 10 per cent chance that some people will not recover… I’m more scared of long COVID than acute COVID and ending up in the hospital,” she said.

DeMars is partnering with Synpatic Health, a non-profit rehabilitation centre, to help with funding challenges and other therapy treatments.

“There are not many resources available, and there’s no funding available for patients needing ongoing care and support, so as a charity, we are able to access some funding streams that allow us to deliver this program,” executive director Uyen Nguyen said.

“We’re able to provide some of the multidisciplinary practitioners such as occupational therapy, mental health, and eventually, nutrition to support what Jessica is doing on the respiratory physio side of things.”

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