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Long COVID study of 100,000 shows slow, sometimes partial recovery

The Scottish study cites fatigue, shortness of breath and cognitive disfunction as among the most common signs of long COVID

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

A study of long COVID-19 published this week in the journal Nature Communications offers a sobering look at the lingering impact of the viral infection, checking in with thousands who had the illness at intervals to measure their recovery.

The researchers, from various institutions in Scotland, found 6% — more than 1 in 20 — of those with symptoms had not recovered between 6 and 18 months after being infected. And 42% had recovered only partially.

“It’s one more well-conducted, population-level study showing that we should be extremely concerned about the current numbers of acute infections,” David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, told The Washington Post. “We are in trouble.”

The Washington Post noted that “throughout the pandemic, U.S. experts, including the president’s chief medical adviser Anthony S. Fauci, turned regularly to British data because it comes from the nationalized health system and reflects trends across the entire population.”

The study is the first analysis of what will be a longer project called the Long-CISS (Covid in Scotland Study). The study includes volunteers over the age of 16 who had a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether the result was negative or positive, focusing on 33,281 people who had a positive test and 69,192 who tested negative. They were asked to complete questionnaires at the 6, 12, and 18 month point post-COVID-19. Ninety-five percent of those who had a positive test and participated in the study were symptomatic when they had COVID-19, most of them with multiple symptoms.

“Previous studies have been challenged by the nonspecific nature of long-COVID symptoms, including breathlessness and fatigue, which are also common in the general population,” The Washington Post reported. One of the study authors, Jill Pell, said that they were “able to pinpoint which symptoms were linked to COVID.”

Defining long COVID

The World Health Organization defines long COVID — it calls it “post COVID-19 condition” — as a condition among those “with a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, usually three months from the onset of COVID-19 with symptoms and that last for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said 7.7-23 million people who had COVID-19 developed long COVID.

WHO says the common symptoms are fatigue, shortness of breath and cognitive dysfunction, among others that challenge one’s normal function. The symptoms can persist after the initial infection or have a new onset. And they can fluctuate or relapse over time, the agency says.

Study findings

Those with COVID-19 were “significantly more likely to get 24 of the 26 symptoms studied, compared to the never-infected population,” she said.

According to the study, “after changes in smell and taste, the large effect sizes were observed for symptoms that were potentially cardiovascular in origin (breathlessness, chest pain and palpitations) and confusion.”

The study found that while it is not as common, even people who were asymptomatic when they had confirmed COVID-19 can have long-COVID symptoms. But the long-COVID symptoms were more severe among those who had been hospitalized with serious COVID-19 symptoms.

The study noted that for those who lost their sense of taste and smell, that often improved between six months and a year. But the number reporting coughs — dry or productive — increased between 6 and 18 months.

The Deseret News reported in March on another study showing memory and concentration problems are common among COVID long haulers.

The researchers did conclude that vaccination did reduce the chance of developing long-COVID symptoms, though perhaps not as much as public health officials hope.