Clinical Topics & News

‘A huge deal’: Millions have long COVID, and more are expected


Global snapshot: Lasting symptoms, impact on activities

Patients describe a spectrum of persistent issues, with extreme fatigue, brain fog or cognitive problems, and shortness of breath among the most common complaints. Many also have manageable symptoms that worsen significantly after even mild physical or mental exertion.

Women appear almost twice as likely as men to get long COVID. Many patients have other medical conditions and disabilities that make them more vulnerable to the condition. Those who face greater obstacles accessing health care due to discrimination or socioeconomic inequity are at higher risk as well.

While many are older, a large number are also in their prime working age. The Census Bureau data show that people ages 40-49 are more likely than any other group to get long COVID, which has broader implications for labor markets and the global economy. Already, experts have estimated that long COVID is likely to cost the U.S. trillions of dollars and affect multiple industries.

“Whether they’re in the financial world, the medical system, lawyers, they’re telling me they’re sitting at the computer screen and they’re unable to process the data,” said Zachary Schwartz, MD, medical director for Vancouver General Hospital’s Post-COVID-19 Recovery Clinic.

“That is what’s most distressing for people, in that they’re not working, they’re not making money, and they don’t know when, or if, they’re going to get better.”

Nearly a third of respondents in the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey who said they have had COVID-19 reported symptoms that lasted 3 months or longer. People between the ages of 30 and 59 were the most affected, with about 32% reporting symptoms. Across the entire adult U.S. population, the survey found that 1 in 7 adults have had long COVID at some point during the pandemic, with about 1 in 18 saying it limited their activity to some degree, and 1 in 50 saying they have faced “a lot” of limits on their activities. Any way these numbers are dissected, long COVID has impacted a large swath of the population.

Yet research into the causes and possible treatments of long COVID is just getting underway.

“The amount of energy and time devoted to it is way, way less than it should, given how many people are likely affected,” said David Cutler, PhD, professor of economics at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., who has written about the economic cost of long COVID. “We’re way, way underdoing it here. And I think that’s really a terrible thing.”

Population surveys and studies from around the world show that long COVID lives up to its name, with people reporting serious symptoms for months on end.

In October, Statistics Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada published early results from a questionnaire done between spring and summer 2022 that found just under 15% of adults who had a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 went on to have new or continuing symptoms 3 or more months later. Nearly half, or 47.3%, dealt with symptoms that lasted a year or more. More than one in five said their symptoms “often or always” limited their day-to-day activities, which included routine tasks such as preparing meals, doing errands and chores, and basic functions such as personal care and moving around in their homes.

Nearly three-quarters of workers or students said they missed an average of 20 days of work or school.

“We haven’t yet been able to determine exactly when symptoms resolve,” said Rainu Kaushal, MD, the senior associate dean for clinical research at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. She is co-leading a national study on long COVID in adults and children, funded by the National Institutes of Health RECOVER Initiative.

“But there does seem to be, for many of the milder symptoms, resolution at about 4-6 weeks. There seems to be a second point of resolution around 6 months for certain symptoms, and then some symptoms do seem to be permanent, and those tend to be patients who have underlying conditions,” she said.

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