A team of University of Illinois Chicago researchers is projected to receive approximately $22 million from the National Institutes of Health over four years to research long COVID-19. The emerging health condition causes many COVID-19 patients, even those who were not hospitalized, to have continued and new symptoms months after their initial illness.
As part of the NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative, UIC is leading an Illinois-based research consortium, called ILLInet RECOVER, which has been selected to participate as one of the cohorts in the NIH initiative.
The Illinois consortium is focused on understanding long COVID-19 in adults and its impact on vulnerable communities in both urban and rural areas.
The team includes UIC researchers in Chicago and Peoria who are working with patients, public health departments, healthcare providers and community-based organizations to understand how to best help people infected with SARS-CoV-2 avoid long COVID-19 effects. These effects can include ongoing fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, sleep disorders, fevers, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, and depression. Symptom severity can range from mild to completely debilitating. Some people, especially those who were severely ill during their COVID-19 illness, may have other health problems.
Enrollment for the study in Chicago is now open. In the Peoria and central Illinois area, enrollment is anticipated to begin later this spring.
“UIC’s health sciences researchers have a steadfast commitment to multidisciplinary collaboration and a strong history of designing and implementing patient-centered research that informs community-focused programs. This award is yet another example of how the university’s academic health enterprise, UI Health, has a long-lasting, positive impact on the health and wellbeing of our neighborhoods across the state, the nation and beyond,” said Dr. Robert Barish, UIC vice chancellor for health affairs. “We look forward to partnering with the NIH and RECOVER’s clinical sciences core to tackle long COVID, one of the greatest health challenges we will face over the coming years and perhaps decades.”
Specifically, the UIC researchers are studying what makes an individual vulnerable to long COVID-19, which is among the conditions known as post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection. In addition, researchers are exploring factors that might be protective and what interventions are needed to help patients get back to normal as quickly as possible if they do experience these long-term effects.
“We want to better understand whether a patient’s recovery differs according to the strain of SARS-CoV-2 that caused COVID-19; health history and lifestyle, including vaccination status before infection; and the role of social and environmental factors,” said Dr. Jerry Krishnan, UIC associate vice chancellor for population health sciences, professor of medicine and public health, and contact principal investigator. “Answers to these questions will help us to support the people and communities most impacted by COVID-19.”
Krishnan says that recent estimates suggest that up to 50% of patients may experience long COVID-19.
“The ILLInet RECOVER multidisciplinary team is ready to provide resources to people who need care, both through UIC’s Post-COVID Clinic and through engaging services throughout Illinois,” said UIC’s Dr. Mark Rosenblatt, executive dean of the College of Medicine, which has campuses in Chicago, Peoria and Rockford. “Through our commitment to education, research, clinical care and social responsibility, our faculty are dedicated to helping all Illinoisans achieve better health and wellness.”
Through a combination of community outreach and new and long-standing partnerships with community-based organizations, the researchers hope to enroll, conduct baseline health assessments, and follow about 1,000 Illinoisans 18 and up from Chicago and Peoria, and surrounding communities.
A COVID-19 diagnosis is not required to participate in the study.
Study participants will fill out a survey about their health, get a brief physical exam, and have some lab tests periodically – every three to 12 months for up to four years. Test results will be shared with the participant and if requested, with their health care providers.
Dr. Jonathan Klein, UIC associate vice chancellor for research and the Savithri and Samuel Raj Professor and executive vice chair of pediatrics, is the study chair and provides overall administrative leadership for the consortium.
“We know that as a public research university we have a twofold responsibility to the people of Illinois – we not only need to bring in high-quality COVID-19 research programs like RECOVER to understand long COVID in our local communities, but we also need to provide the best care possible to people who need medical support after COVID-19 illness,” Klein said.
UI Health, which is UIC’s health system, is the main clinical research site for the study in Chicago. OSF St. Francis Medical Center – an affiliate of the College of Medicine in providing clinical training to medical students, residents and fellows in Peoria – will be one of the main clinical sites for the study when it launches in central Illinois.
Study co-principal investigator Dr. Sarah Stewart de Ramirez, associate professor of emergency medicine and director of equity innovation medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria and medical director of population health at OSF HealthCare, said the study “allows our community of patients, especially those historically underrepresented in research but immensely impacted by COVID, to contribute to the collective understanding of long COVID.”
The researchers are also partnering with community organizations and local health departments to connect area residents with opportunities to participate in the study.
Chris Harris, the pastor of Bright STAR Church, is one community member working with the UIC research team in Chicago to engage the community in the project. Harris’ congregation, located in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side, has helped hundreds of Chicagoans get vaccinated but he says people in his community still need support.
“I am extremely committed to this very important project and all of the partners,” Harris said. “We have a moral and spiritual responsibility to inform, inspire and involve every person we can when it comes to the virus. Lives are at stake.”
Monica Hendrickson, the administrator of the Peoria City/County Health Department, said the city has been “ground-zero in seeing impacts of COVID-19” in the area but that the study will provide valuable information about the virus and how it will impact the community’s health.
Additional community partners will include Illinois UNIDOS, Envision, Teamwork Englewood, Central Illinois Friends, Friendship House, Chicago Urban League, and Tri-county Peoria Urban League.
The research team also includes co-principal investigators Dr. Wayne Giles, dean of the School of Public Health; Bellur Prabhakar, senior associate dean for research and professor of microbiology and immunology; Dr. Heather Prendergast, associate dean for clinical affairs and professor of emergency medicine; and Dr. Terry Vanden Hoek, professor and head of emergency medicine and chief medical officer at UI Health.
Additional co-investigators are Robin Mermelstein, distinguished professor of psychology, and Dr. Richard Novak, the Harry F. Dowling Professor of Medicine and head of the division of infectious diseases, who are co-directors of the UIC Center for Clinical and Translational Research, a federally funded center for supporting translational research.
The NIH funding for ILLInet RECOVER is provided by other transactions authority (OT2HL16184701). According to the NIH, other transactions allow for much greater speed, flexibility, and accessibility in performing research and prototyping activities than standard procurement contracts, grants, or cooperative agreements.
The funding builds upon multiple federal grant awards to UIC for COVID-19 research, such as awards to:
- Bolster research and outreach to help communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
- Offer free rapid diagnostic testing for COVID-19 in vulnerable Chicago communities and perform genomic sequencing to monitor variants.
- Understand vaccine hesitancy across different communities and the best interventions to improve vaccine confidence and uptake.
- Support multiple COVID-19 clinical trials for drug and antibody treatments, blood clot prevention and vaccines.
Anyone interested in taking part in long COVID-19 research can contact email@example.com or visit illinet.org for more information.