This year, the world has had to face a worsening of chronic COVID. A wave of people with long-term symptoms — some mild, some deeply debilitating — has called for attention.
“We are in the midst of a massive disabling event,” said physician Talya Fleming of the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison, NJ. Science News (SN: 11/5/22, p. 22). A recent estimate suggests that more than 18 million people in the United States have chronic COVID. However, researchers know little about the disease and those who suffer from it.
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One key question is: Who is at risk? The search for risk factors has yielded few clear answers. Women may be slightly more likely than men to get chronic illness, as are people who have had more than five symptoms within the first week of COVID-19 (.SN: 10/8/22 & 10/22/22, p. 18).
Part of what confuses simple answers is that long-term COVID can affect multiple body systems, leading to fatigue, loss of smell, memory problems, blood clots and even sensations of internal tremors that feel similar to motion (SN: 9/24/22, p. 14).
The symptoms may be due to the persistent virus lurking in the body, as well as the body’s response to the intruder. Micro blood clots, antibodies against the body, inflammation and even disruption of helpful bacteria have all been examined for roles in disease.
The lack of clarity is what makes finding treatments so difficult. Doctors in long-standing COVID clinics, which are few and far between, rush to ease people’s symptoms, often overlapping therapies from other disorders that cause similar problems, such as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.SN: 11/5/22, p. 25).
A long list of questions was raised about the new need, the swelling of people experiencing long-term COVID. Epidemiologist Priya Duggal of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and colleagues suspect that between 10 and 30 percent of people who acquire COVID-19 may go on to develop chronic COVID-19. It coincides with federal data that suggests about 30 percent of US adults who have contracted COVID-19 have experienced long-term COVID. But he notes that medical records and other information all come with defects, so that exact numbers are impossible, he says.
What is perhaps most helpful, says Duggal, is considering how many people are seriously affected by the disease. “These are the people” [who] live happy, healthy lives, and now they are not,” he said. He estimates that about 1 to 5 percent of people who fall into this category may have COVID-19. That sounds like a small number, he says, but “even if it’s 1 percent,” that’s 1 percent of all people who have had COVID. This is just a really, really big number. An estimated 100 million people in the United States have had COVID-19. It’s probably underrated, Duggal says.
In the early days of the pandemic, Duggal and colleagues wanted to collect as much biological data on people as they could before covid-19 tore through the world. However, logistics and lack of funding prevented those studies. “If we had some from that place, we would be able to ask better questions now and get answers,” he said. “I hope that something of what he has taught us here, next time this happens – and we hope that it is not already time – we think a little more about what is going to happen.
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