For Many Covid Survivors, the Battle Isn’t Over

Photo: Javad Esmaeili/Unsplash

It’s impossible to predict with certainty how Covid will affect you if you get infected. Many Covid survivors fully recover within weeks of the onset of their illness, but for others, symptoms linger. Early in the pandemic, it became clear that many people infected with Covid continue to suffer from debilitating symptoms after the acute illness. Many people who initially experienced mild symptoms, or none at all, are suffering from new, returning or ongoing health problems months after their Covid symptoms started.

Their stories are a lesson — and a warning — to us all.

Although we don’t know for certain how many people are suffering from lasting symptoms, the numbers we do have are striking. Studies suggest it may be between 1 in 10 to more than half of those infected with Covid. In the UK as of June 6, 2021, an estimated 962,000 people (1.5% of the population) reported symptoms persisting more than four weeks after their suspected infection, with 178,000 (18.5%) reporting that their ability to undertake day-to-day activities had been “limited a lot” by their symptoms. Further, 385,000 people reported ongoing symptoms more than a year after their initial Covid illness. Even with so many people suffering from long Covid, many questions remain unanswered.

People with lasting symptoms, who may be known as long haulers, have formed online groups such as the Body Politic COVID-19 Support Group, and launched patient-led research initiatives in an attempt to find answers to their unresolved questions about the illness. Their efforts increased scientific, medical and public recognition of the phenomenon of persistent health problems among Covid survivors and coined the now widely-used term “long Covid.”

The long battle with Covid

A new study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases monitored 96 adult in- and out-patients in Germany for 12 months after their Covid symptoms started. After a year, only 23% of these patients were completely free of symptoms. More than half experienced fatigue and reduced exercise capacity. Close to 40% experienced shortness of breath, concentration problems and problems finding words, and 26% percent experienced sleeping problems. Long Covid isn’t just a problem for the elderly or immunocompromised — the study shows that some symptoms were much more prevalent in patients younger than 60.

So far, we understand that long Covid symptoms can persist for at least a year after infection and can reduce quality of life significantly. The most effective way to avoid both severe illness and long Covid is vaccination.

Motivating the vaccine-hesitant

A new survey from Resolve to Save Lives showed one third of American adults are unaware of long Covid. People who are hesitant about vaccination are even more likely to be unaware. After learning about Covid’s long-term consequences, 32% of unvaccinated respondents said they are more likely to get vaccinated. Then, after watching video testimonials from long haulers, 64% of respondents said they felt more concerned about the condition. Sharing these personal stories about the risks of Covid could encourage people to protect themselves with vaccines, which is critical to reduce the number of people who get infected with Covid and prevent more suffering and death from both Covid and long Covid.

Our survey showed the need for more public awareness about the damage Covid leaves in its wake. We still have a lot to learn about long Covid, including how common it is and how to treat it, but the best way to avoid it is vaccination. Some long haulers have even reported that their symptoms subsided after getting vaccinated. It’s better for your body to be prepared for a fight. Vaccines save your body from the risk of having to learn to fight Covid by getting Covid. They give your immune system instructions to recognize the virus and kill it if you’re exposed.

The more we understand the spectrum of recovery from infection, the better we can care for and support those with lasting symptoms. The National Institute of Health has dedicated $1.1 billion to study long Covid over the next four years, which will improve our knowledge of how humans recover from Covid infection and our understanding of other chronic post-viral syndromes.

A long way to go

This week, the global toll of confirmed deaths from Covid surpassed 4 million, though the true death toll is likely to be much (perhaps 3 times) higher when accounting for excess mortality and unreported Covid deaths. This number will continue to rise steadily until we ensure global access to vaccines and combat the unacceptable inequity in vaccine rollout between high and lower-income countries. Much of the world continues to fight Covid surges — with no clear timeline for when vaccines will be readily available and no end to the pandemic in sight.

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world who beat Covid are still suffering from the long-term effects of the virus. Vaccination is our route out of the pandemic. We must do all we can to increase vaccination, reduce the number of people who get infected with Covid, and improve care for those with Covid and long Covid to prevent suffering and death.

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President and CEO, Resolve to Save Lives | Former CDC Director and NYC Health Commissioner | Focused on saving lives. twitter.com/drtomfrieden

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Dr. Tom Frieden

Dr. Tom Frieden

President and CEO, Resolve to Save Lives | Former CDC Director and NYC Health Commissioner | Focused on saving lives. twitter.com/drtomfrieden

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