A year after the first wave of Covid-19 infections swept across the country, a group of patients is marking the start of an illness that never went away.
Suffering from what’s often referred to as “long Covid,” an estimated roughly 10% to 30% of Covid patients continue to experience symptoms months after their initial diagnosis. Many had mild to moderate Covid cases at first, and didn’t require hospitalization. But months later, they are grappling with often-debilitating symptoms that can include brain fog, fatigue, shortness of breath, racing heart beat, and an inability to tolerate physical or mental exertion.
Doctors are struggling to determine what causes the symptoms, exactly how many people are affected and why some suffer while others recover. It’s unclear why women—generally younger or in middle age, who were previously healthy—appear to be disproportionately affected, according to the demographics of post-Covid clinics and support groups. But there is growing consensus that it is a significant disease that needs to be better understood.
In February, the National Institutes of Health announced a major initiative to study long Covid, backed by $1.15 billion in funding. “Large numbers of patients who have been infected with [Covid] continue to experience a constellation of symptoms long past the time that they’ve recovered from the initial stages of Covid-19 illness,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins in the announcement. He pointed to a survey of more than 3,700 self-described Covid long-haulers that indicated nearly half couldn’t work full-time six months after developing prolonged symptoms. The findings came from patient-led research that sprung out of a long Covid advocacy group called Body Politic.
A February study in JAMA found that roughly one-third of 177 people who’d largely had mild Covid cases reported persistent symptoms up to nine months after illness. Nearly 30% of nonhospitalized patients reported worse quality of life. Another recent study, in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, found that 66% of 118 patients with mild to moderate Covid had at least one symptom four months later. Nearly 40% reported a work impairment and 11% said they had to miss some work due to their symptoms.