Those are two of the most striking findings of a comprehensive new of 138,000 veterans.
Lead researcher Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, chief of research at Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care and clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke with this news organization about his team’s findings, what we know – and don’t – about long COVID, and what it means for physicians treating patients with the condition.
Excerpts of the interview follow.
Your research concluded that for those infected early in the pandemic, some long COVID symptoms declined over 2 years, but some did not. You have also concluded that long COVID is a chronic disease. Why?
We’ve been in this journey a little bit more than three and a half years. Some patients do experience some recovery. But that’s not the norm. Most people do not really fully recover. The health trajectory for people with long COVID is really very heterogeneous. There is no one-size-fits-all. There’s really no one line that I could give you that could cover all your patients. But it is very, very, very clear that a bunch of them experienced long COVID for sure; that’s really happening.
It happened in the pre-Delta era and in the Delta era, and with Omicron subvariants, even now. There are people who think, “This is a nothing-burger anymore,” or “It’s not an issue anymore.” It’s still happening with the current variants. Vaccines do reduce risk for long COVID, but do not completely eliminate the risk for long COVID.
You work with patients with long COVID in the clinic and also analyze data from thousands more. If long COVID does not go away, what should doctors look for in everyday practice that will help them recognize and help patients with long COVID?
Long COVID is not uncommon. We see it in the clinic in large numbers. Whatever clinic you’re running – if you’re running a cardiology clinic, or a nephrology clinic, or diabetes, or primary care – probably some of your people have it. You may not know about it. They may not tell you about it. You may not recognize it.
Not all long COVID is the same, and that’s really what makes it complex and makes it really hard to deal with in the clinic. But that’s the reality that we’re all dealing with. And it’s multisystemic; it’s not like it affects the heart only, the brain only, or the autonomic nervous system only. It does not behave in the same way in different individuals – they may have different manifestations, various health trajectories, and different outcomes. It’s important for doctors to get up to speed on long COVID as a multisystem illness.
Management at this point is really managing the symptoms. We don’t have a treatment for it; we don’t have a cure for it.
Some patients experience what you’ve described as partial recovery. What does that look like?
Some individuals do experience some recovery over time, but for most individuals, the recovery is long and arduous. Long COVID can last with them for many years. Some people may come back to the clinic and say, “I’m doing better,” but if you really flesh it out and dig deeper, they didn’t do better; they adjusted to a new baseline. They used to walk the dog three to four blocks, and now they walk the dog only half a block. They used to do an activity with their partner every Saturday or Sunday, and now they do half of that.
If you’re a physician, a primary care provider, or any other provider who is dealing with a patient with long COVID, know that this is really happening. It can happen even in vaccinated individuals. The presentation is heterogeneous. Some people may present to you with and say. “Well, before I had COVID I was mentally sharp and now having I’m having difficulty with memory, etc.” It can sometimes present as fatigue or postexertional malaise.
In some instances, it can present as sleep problems. It can present as what we call postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). Those people get a significant increase in heart rate with postural changes.
What the most important thing we can we learn from the emergence of long COVID?
This whole thing taught us that infections can cause chronic disease. That’s really the No. 1 lesson that I take from this pandemic – that infections can cause chronic disease.
Looking at only acute illness from COVID is really only looking at the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that tip of the iceberg lies this hidden toll of disease that we don’t really talk about that much.
This pandemic shone a very, very good light on the idea that there is really an intimate connection between infections and chronic disease. It was really hardwired into our medical training as doctors that most infections, when people get over the hump of the acute phase of the disease, it’s all behind them. I think long COVID has humbled us in many, many ways, but chief among those is the realization – the stark realization – that infections can cause chronic disease.
That’s really going back to your [first] question: What does it mean that some people are not recovering? They actually have chronic illness. I’m hoping that we will find a treatment, that we’ll start finding things that would help them get back to baseline. But at this point in time, what we’re dealing with is people with chronic illness or chronic disease that may continue to affect them for many years to come in the absence of a treatment or a cure.
A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.