Treating mental health after COVID-19 hospitalization

May 13, 2021 By Judy F. Minkove

A Johns Hopkins neuropsychologist discusses research into the psychological effects of post-acute COVID

Editor’s Note: Since publication of the following story, the Post-Acute COVID Treatment Team has received a significant NIH grant for longer term follow up. There are also plans to follow up with older COVID survivors because of concern about how the infection might trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.

During the past 12 years, neuropsychologist Tracy Vannorsdall has counseled scores of patients with mental and emotional health issues associated with cancer, and she has published her research widely. When the pandemic began in March 2020, her focus turned to the psychological impact of COVID-19 on its survivors — a topic for which she says studies are only just beginning to emerge.

Portrait of Tracy Vannorsdall.
Tracy Vannorsdall

Vannorsdall is part of the Johns Hopkins Post-Acute COVID-19 Team (JH PACT), a multidisciplinary group of experts who began working together and chronicling data in April 2020, with the first admission of a patient diagnosed with COVID-19 to The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). By the end of 2020, studies began showing that following a COVID-19 hospitalization, as many as half of patients reported symptoms of psychiatric distress such as anxiety, depression, trauma-related distress, and/or insomnia.

“The severity of neuropsychological symptoms remains high,” Vannorsdall explains.  “When we looked at data from our first 82 patients, we discovered that more than two-thirds of them are producing moderately low to very low scores on tests of cognition. We’re seeing deficits in processing speed, language, learning and memory. Patients with pulmonary issues often talk about the emotional changes they experience. We’ve learned that about three-quarters of those diagnosed with COVID-19 say they are still feeling negative effects on their emotional well-being four months after their initial diagnosis.”

Hopkins Medicine’s multidisciplinary COVID-19 survivors’ ambulatory clinic is among the first such units in the U.S., notes Vannorsdall, who has seen more than 200 patients for cognitive assessments through the program.

Vannorsdall discusses more of her findings in a Q&A with Hopkins Medicine. 

Topics: Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine