This week, AM analysts are tracking the growing trend of post-COVID-19 survivors who are experiencing lingering health complications, often referred to as “long COVID.” Long COVID is a range of symptoms that can last weeks or even months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms such as fatigue, loss of smell or taste, headaches, difficulty breathing, chest pains, chronic cough, and anxiety. COVID-19 can also cause lung, heart, and kidney damage. Some survivors of the illness have even developed type 2 diabetes. Forbes recently reported that prolonged inflammation may be to blame for the heightened risk of depression doctors are seeing in COVID-19 patients.
Although there is no official count of COVID-19 long-haulers in the United States, research from Johns Hopkins University estimates that 10 to 30% percent of patients are experiencing prolonged symptoms. Even more alarming, a recent CDC study found two-thirds of non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients went back to their doctors seeking relief from symptoms up to six months after contracting the virus and a Stanford University study finds the numbers are even higher for those who were hospitalized.
In a recent interview, ABC 7 News photojournalist, Mike Rudd, told the station’s health reporter, Victoria Sanchez, that, when he contracted COVID-19, his symptoms were mild and included a loss of taste and smell. Months after recovering, he is still experiencing health complications from the virus. “Certain foods don’t taste like I remember them tasting. So, I drank the same brand of coffee every morning for the last 10 years. After having COVID, that coffee tastes awful.” He also told the reporter that walking up his basement flight of stairs has become exhausting. Another COVID-19 long-hauler shared her experience with PEW News. On day 164 of her COVID-19 ordeal, Andréa Ceresa has seen three gastroenterologists, an infectious disease specialist, a hematologist, a cardiologist, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, a physiatrist, and an integrative doctor. She’s had an endoscopy, a colonoscopy, a CT scan, a brain MRI and so many blood tests, she said, “I feel like a human pin-cushion.” Mike and Andréa are not alone. Science Daily estimates that eight months after mild COVID-19 infections, one in 10 people still have at least one moderate to severe symptom of COVID-19. The virus is also taking a toll on their day-to-day life. In one survey, nearly half of long-haulers had to reduce their work hours.
Along with persistent health problems, the lingering effects of COVID-19 are stressing insurance coverage as patients seek ongoing medical care. Some are faced with medical bills that they are unable to pay. The Wall Street Journal reported that one COVID-19 long-hauler patient faces more than $100,000 in medical bills. She is among a group of people developing long-term medical issues from COVID-19 that often require expensive medical care.
Although federal laws ensure COVID-19 tests and vaccines are free, this same protection is not extended to COVID-19 survivors who require long-term care. In fact, those with private health insurance are being faced with high copays, deductibles, and medical bills. This underscores a need to focus attention on those with persistent serious COVID-19 long-hauler symptoms. Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease doctor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security told PEW News, “In this pandemic so far we’ve thought mainly about the metrics of deaths and hospitalizations, but now we must think about people with long-hauler symptoms,” he said. Dr. Diana Bennet, founder of Survivor Corp, a grassroots organization of 107,000 members agrees. “Beyond finding a way to pay for COVID-19 treatments, the federal government should invest heavily in understanding the medical experience of long-haulers with an eye toward developing effective treatments.”
As the nation continues to research the mental, physical, and financial impact of “long COVID,” AM analysts have learned from public health experts that it may possibly be the next big healthy emergency. No one knows the long-term effects of post-COVID-19 symptoms; however, a promising April report from Yale Medicine reveals that vaccines seem to provide relief for some patients with “long COVID.” Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D., professor of immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine said, “As many as 30 to 40% of those who get the vaccine have reported improvements to their symptoms. I’ve heard from people who say they no longer have ‘brain fog,’ their gastrointestinal problems have gone away, or they stopped suffering from the shortness of breath they’ve been living with since being diagnosed with COVID-19. It’s possible that the vaccine is helping the immune system fight off residual COVID-19 virus lingering in their bodies and clearing these remnants away,” says Iwasaki. There is still a lot to be learned about how the vaccine works in long-haulers, but in light of this new discovery, it is important for the public health community to continue to educate people about the importance of getting vaccinated — especially those who are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms long after recovery.
AM TRACE is currently working nationwide with multiple states and public health agencies on testing, contact tracing, and vaccination programs. Counties, states, or K-12 partners that are interested in partnering with AM TRACE for COVID-19 mitigation support should contact Dr. Christopher K Orlea at firstname.lastname@example.org.