As Americans begin to envision a post-COVID future, caution still is warranted. Although most people who contract coronavirus recover quickly, new studies are identifying the long-term impact of the disease.
“Post-COVID conditions were found to a greater extent in patients who had more severe cases of COVID-19, but also in a substantial share of patients whose cases lacked symptoms,” reads the summary of a detailed study from FAIR Health. “Of patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19, the percentage that had a post-COVID condition was 50 percent; of patients who were symptomatic but not hospitalized, 27.5 percent; and of patients who were asymptomatic, 19 percent.”
The most common long-term conditions attributed to coronavirus are pain, breathing difficulties, hyperlipidemia (a concentration of fats or lipids in the blood), malaise and fatigue, and hypertension. Among patients 18 and younger, pain and breathing difficulties are the most frequent conditions.
FAIR Health, a nonprofit organization, examined the records of 2 million COVID patients through private health insurance claims. Of those, about half reported no symptoms from their infection.
“One thing that was surprising to us was the large percentage of asymptomatic patients that are in that category of long COVID,” FAIR Health president Robin Gelburd said.
Those findings are echoed in a study released last month by the Stanford School of Medicine. That study identified 84 lingering symptoms attributed to coronavirus.
“If something on the order of 70 percent of those coming out of moderate-to-serious COVID-19 are showing persisting symptoms, that is a huge number,” said Steven Goodman, lead author and a professor at the school. “It’s astonishing how many symptoms are part of what’s now being referred to as long COVID.”
Since early in the pandemic, questions have lingered about the long-term effects of a previously unknown disease. The Columbian has detailed those effects through a series of articles about local people, with one woman who contracted the disease a year ago saying: “It’s just crazy how long it’s taking for me to get better. I make tiny improvements, and then I go backwards if I push myself too much. It’s this crazy cycle. It’s frustrating it has been so long.”
The FAIR Health study finds that the most common issue for patients is pain — including nerve inflammation and sore muscles. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports: “Even people who did not have symptoms when they were infected can have post-COVID conditions. These conditions can have different types and combinations of health problems for different lengths of time.”
Vaccines have helped slow the spread of coronavirus and have provided a boost of confidence when it comes to social interactions. In addition to being effective in preventing the disease, vaccines also have been shown to reduce symptoms in those who do become ill. But the long-term effects indicate that diligence is still required.
Preventive actions that have become de rigueur — frequently washing hands, avoiding handshakes and wearing a mask when in unfamiliar company — should retain a place in a post-COVID world. Contracting even a mild case of coronavirus can have a long-term impact.
The overriding point is that even with infection numbers declining, COVID-19 is still going to be with us — especially for many who once contracted it.