Why impact of ‘long COVID’ could outlast the pandemic
(CNA) – Millions of people who have gotten COVID-19 and survived are finding that a full recovery can be frustratingly elusive. Weeks or even months after seemingly recovering from even a mild case, many patients still confront a wide range of health problems.
As researchers try to measure the duration and depth of what’s being called “long COVID,” specialised, post–acute COVID-19 clinics are opening to handle the patients. The scale of the pandemic and persistence of some of COVID-19’s disabling effects mean the economic pain and drain on health resources could continue well after the contagion ends.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT LONG COVID?
Most patients who suffer from COVID-19 fully recover, but some suffer long-term pulmonary, cardiovascular and nervous-system problems as well as psychological effects. These can occur irrespective of the initial severity of the SARS-CoV-2 infection, but happen more frequently in women, the middle-aged, and in individuals who experienced more COVID-19 symptoms initially.
Although most long COVID symptoms don’t seem to be life-threatening, a study published in April 2021 in the journal Nature found that sufferers had a 59 per cent increased risk of dying within six months. That works out to about eight extra deaths per 1,000 COVID-19 patients – adding to the pandemic’s hidden toll.
WHAT’S THE DEFINITION?
According to the World Health Organization, people with what it calls “post Covid-19 condition” have symptoms usually three months after an initial bout of COVID-19 that last for at least two months and can’t be explained by an alternative diagnosis.
Common ones include fatigue, shortness of breath and cognitive dysfunction – all of which affect everyday functioning. These ailments may appear following recovery from the acute phase of COVID-19 – even one with no noticeable symptoms – or persist well after the initial illness. Symptoms may also fluctuate or relapse over time.
The WHO says this definition may change as new evidence emerges, and that a separate definition may be needed for children. Other groups have proposed alternative definitions based on the constellation of symptoms affecting such people, who are colloquially known as long-haulers.
HOW PREVALENT ARE LONG-TERM EFFECTS?
Researchers haven’t studied enough cases over a long enough period to gauge the full range of effects, what proportion of patients will suffer from them or for how long. Various published studies indicate that about 10 to 20 per cent of people experience lingering symptoms for weeks to months after infection.
Early findings and the demand for specialised clinics to help survivors deal with scarred lungs, chronic heart damage, fatigue and other conditions indicate a significant prevalence. About 1.1 million people in the UK reported experiencing long COVID as of early September, according to the Office for National Statistics. Of those: