Long-COVID: U of U research studies pregnant women and infants born with COVID

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – With thousands of new COVID-19 cases announced in Utah every day, symptoms of “long-COVID” have been a phenomenon in some patients.

The University of Utah is leading a national study of long-COVID effects on both pregnant women and adults. Long-COVID affects up to 30% of COVID-19 patients, health officials say.

Researchers are looking to answer questions about the lingering effects of COVID-19 on pregnant individuals and their infants. Specifically, they aim to understand why some folks develop post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 (PASC) also known as long-COVID.

Symptoms include difficulty breathing, memory issues, chest pain, fatigue, or rapid heart rate. These symptoms are typically lingering and could cause a host of health issues. Research suggests that pregnant people who contract COVID-19 are three times more likely to receive intensive medical care and are twice as likely to die from the infection.

“We really don’t understand right now what the long-term consequences are of getting COVID-19 in pregnancy,” says Torri D. Metz, MD, MS, a maternal-fetal medicine subspecialist and associate professor at U of U Health who is leading a multi-center effort seeking answers to this question.

If a pregnant person contracts COVID-19, could they pass it on to their newborn? Health officials say viral transmission from mother to child during pregnancy is rare, yet up to 3% of infants born to COVID-positive mothers test positive for the virus.

“It’s possible that the disease may be different in pregnant women because their immune systems function a bit differently than in non-pregnant women,” says Metz. “In terms of offspring, we know how important the in-utero environment is for babies, and we’re concerned that the inflammatory process that occurs when patients who are pregnant get COVID-19 may affect the babies in utero and after they are born.”

Over the next four years, U of U researchers along with colleagues from 12 other medical institutions nationwide will study around 1,500 women who were COVID-positive during their pregnancies, along with their children who were born during that time. They’ll also track the health of about 250 regular women who did not test positive for COVID-19 and their offspring to compare.

Specifically, researchers are looking for any cognitive or cardiovascular complications as the children get older.

“Because this is such a new syndrome, determining what is different about people who develop PASC as a result of having COVID-19 is an important task,” says Rachel Hess, M.D., co-director of the Utah Clinical and Translational Science Institute. “This study could help us better define what this syndrome is and improve our understanding of its biological basis.”

Along with studying pregnant women and infants, U of U researchers will also study long-COVID symptoms in adults along with the Mountain States PASC Consortium (MSPC), a coalition of five health care systems in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

“Tracking individuals who currently have COVID-19 could help us determine if there are any patterns early in the disease that lead some patients to develop PASC later on,” says Hess.

Back in June, U of U announced a new clinic dedicated to studying long-COVID symptoms.

“My biggest hope for the MSPC study is that we can develop a better understanding of why some people are experiencing really debilitating PASC symptoms and eventually help them get back to normal—or as close to it as possible,” Hess says.

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