GREAT FALLS — With all of the talk about COVID, one thing that doesn’t often get talked about is the recovery process and "long Covid" - lingering effects that some people experience.
For many people, that process can include a rehab program such as the one at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, which is one of only about 40 in the country.
The federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) explains on its website:
Post-COVID conditions are a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems people can experience four or more weeks after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. These post-COVID conditions may also be known as long COVID, long-haul COVID, post-acute COVID-19, long-term effects of COVID, or chronic COVID.
Among the symptoms of post-Covid:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Difficulty thinking or concentrating (“brain fog”)
- Chest or stomach pain
- Joint or muscle pain
Dr. Brad Nieset is the Benefis post-COVID recovery program manager has been helping people recover from COVID for about eight months.
“We see patients all across the state of Montana. We’ve seen patients as young as 13 all the way up to 85,” Nieset said.
As of Sunday, Benefis’ post-COVID recovery program was the only one in Montana and is for people who are still struggling with lasting effects of the virus months after getting sick.
"We start with a telehealth appointment,” Nieset explained. After that, the treatments vary depending on the symptoms.
“Treatment of underlying respiratory problems have been directed to cardiopulmonary rehab, oxygen therapy, and then inhalers,” said Nieset. "A lot of patients, we’re finding, the best response has been a nebulized treatment which is an aerosol treatment. Patients have responded as quickly as four weeks and sometimes resolution in as little as eight weeks.”
Nieset said currently an average of 10% of COVID patients will develop long-term symptoms that would be best treated by a post-COVID recovery program.
A map on the program’s website shows the number of potential COVID patients in each Montana who will develop long-term symptoms and need a program such as the one Benefis offers. According to the map, when the data was last updated on May 13, 2021 the number was 909 in Cascade County and 687 in neighboring Lewis & Clark County.
Seeing patients recover through Benefis’ program is rewarding for Nieset.
“What’s very rewarding in this is helping validate a patient’s symptoms and showing objectively data that shows this is what’s going on. Sometimes, they may have been seeing multiple providers and didn’t really know what was going on or didn’t even know what tests to begin to order,” said Nieset.
“One of things we always ask about is your functional capacity, what kind of exercise routine you were doing before COVID even occurred, what’s your occupation. Those are all the quality of life indicators that, definitely, we want to see return. If we’re doing full recovery, at the end you should be able to return to that level of competition, your job, or just something you enjoy in life.”
He added that, as of Sunday, Benefis had almost 16 providers in several specialties and will continue to add more and grow the program as necessary.