Checking Up On Health: January 18, 2021

Life after COVID-19 for ‘long-haulers’

Medical Monday: A weekly post of healthcare- and technology-related policy news, views and commentaries.

By Benita M. Dodd

A dear young friend and colleague tested for COVID-19 around Thanksgiving and, after quarantining and treatment, he recovered from his mild symptoms. As too many Americans are discovering post-COVID, however,  recovering from the novel coronavirus doesn’t mean their health issues are over.

Under the impression his acquired immunity and return to health meant all was well,  when he started feeling unwell early this year, he thought he was coming down with the flu. By the time this strapping young man realized about 10 days ago that it wasn’t the flu, he had to be admitted to the COVID-19 intensive-care unit, then cardiac ICU, with life-threatening virus-related complications.

There’s even a term for such people: “long-haulers,” COVID-19 survivors who suffer various often-debilitating symptoms long after the original infection is over. (Interested in how the term began? Visit Overdrive trucking magazine to read about the Portland, Ore., teacher with a trucker’s cap who came up with the designation for those who discover they’re facing an indefinite period of further suffering.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 35% of those infected by COVID-19 endure symptoms lasting beyond three weeks. According to an article in The Atlantic, most are women. “Victims’ average age is 44, and most did not have serious pre-existing conditions – again, unlike the stereotype of most victims being elderly and in poor health.”

Becker’s Hospital Review cited a survey in the medical preprint server medRxiv identifying more than 200 long-term symptoms that can affect “long haulers.” Among the findings in the survey of 3,762 respondents from 56 countries (not yet been peer-reviewed):

  • In total, respondents identified 205 symptoms in 10 organs linked to the virus, including 66 symptoms traced over seven months.
  • The most commonly reported symptoms after six months were fatigue (77.7%), post-exertional malaise (72.2%) and cognitive dysfunction (55.4%). 
  • Respondents sick six months after symptom onset experienced an average of 13.8 symptoms.

Another survey, of 1,500 Facebook page members of the COVID-19 support group Survivor Corps, identified 98 symptoms that they continue to experience. In an Indiana University School of Medicine report, the largest number reported fatigue, muscle or body aches, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, and the inability to exercise or be active. About 26% of respondents reported headaches, joint pain and persistent chest pain.

And now, of course, the concerns begin about mutating strains of the virus. Variant B.1.1.7, also known as the U.K. variant, is supposed to be roughly 50% more contagious than the original virus. It has already shown up in several states, including Georgia and, officials say, highlights the need to speed up vaccinations. The second new coronavirus strain is variant N501Y, with an E484K mutation, first discovered in South Africa, and now in Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom. It is worrisome because it is less controlled by the new COVID19 vaccines, though they still do work against it to some extent. Vaccines may need to be tweaked. Source: Kiplinger

10 for 2021: What are the top 10 patient safety priorities for 2021? The Becker’s Clinical Leadership & Infection Control editorial team listed those that healthcare leaders should prioritize. Among them, of course, was COVID-19. Also included were drug and medical supply shortages; missed and delayed diagnoses; low vaccination rates and disease resurgence, and surgical mistakes.  

Notable Quote

“As I finish my oatmeal, I sit to think for a moment. Am I really nervous about this vaccine? Do I really expect any intolerable side effects? Will others follow suit, especially the general public, when it is available to them? Will this COVID thing ever really be over? Then I realize that the number one feeling I have, the number one ‘side effect’ I am feeling, is overwhelming relief. Relief that I was privileged enough to be in the first group of people to receive the vaccine. Relief that I can worry a little less about contracting the virus and bringing it home to my husband and kids. Relief that I may get to travel, go on vacation, and see my extended family again. Relief that maybe, slowly, this can help to stop the spread and the unmatched death that this virus has caused. Relief that other health care workers, especially those at highest risk, will be protected as well. Relief that maybe a few more families will be kept whole. Relief that children may one day be able to go back to school. Relief that small businesses may one day thrive again. Relief that one day we’ll be able to interact with each other again on a human level by touching, holding hands, hugging, and comforting one another.” — Tuere Hughes-Kapenzi, a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Mama


Compiled by Benita M. Dodd, vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. For more healthcare updates, sign up for the Friday Facts

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