Clinical Topics & News

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


 

Roughly 7% of all adult Americans may currently have had long COVID, with symptoms that have lasted 3 months or longer, according to the latest U.S. government survey done in October. More than a quarter say their condition is severe enough to significantly limit their day-to-day activities – yet the problem is only barely starting to get the attention of employers, the health care system, and policymakers.

With no cure or treatment in sight, long COVID is already burdening not only the health care system, but also the economy – and that burden is set to grow. Many experts worry about the possible long-term ripple effects, from increased spending on medical care costs to lost wages due to not being able to work, as well as the policy implications that come with addressing these issues.

“At this point, anyone who’s looking at this seriously would say this is a huge deal,” says senior Brookings Institution fellow Katie Bach, the author of a study that analyzed long COVID’s impact on the labor market.

“We need a real concerted focus on treating these people, which means both research and the clinical side, and figuring out how to build a labor market that is more inclusive of people with disabilities,” she said.

It’s not only that many people are affected. It’s that they are often affected for months and possibly even years.

The U.S. government figures suggest more than 18 million people could have symptoms of long COVID right now. The latest Household Pulse Survey by the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics takes data from 41,415 people.

A preprint of a study by researchers from City University of New York, posted on medRxiv in September and based on a similar population survey done between June 30 and July 2, drew comparable results. The study has not been peer reviewed.

More than 7% of all those who answered said they had long COVID at the time of the survey, which the researchers said corresponded to approximately 18.5 million U.S. adults. The same study found that a quarter of those, or an estimated 4.7 million adults, said their daily activities were impacted “a lot.”

This can translate into pain not only for the patients, but for governments and employers, too.

In high-income countries around the world, government surveys and other studies are shedding light on the extent to which post-COVID-19 symptoms – commonly known as long COVID – are affecting populations. While results vary, they generally fall within similar ranges.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 10% and 20% of those with COVID-19 go on to have an array of medium- to long-term post-COVID-19 symptoms that range from mild to debilitating. The U.S. Government Accountability Office puts that estimate at 10% to 30%; one of the latest studies published at the end of October in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 15% of U.S. adults who had tested positive for COVID-19 reported current long COVID symptoms. Elsewhere, a study from the Netherlands published in The Lancet in August found that one in eight COVID-19 cases, or 12.7%, were likely to become long COVID.

“It’s very clear that the condition is devastating people’s lives and livelihoods,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote in an article for The Guardian newspaper in October.

“The world has already lost a significant number of the workforce to illness, death, fatigue, unplanned retirement due to an increase in long-term disability, which not only impacts the health system, but is a hit to the overarching economy … the impact of long COVID for all countries is very serious and needs immediate and sustained action equivalent to its scale.”

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