Long Covid: ‘All hands on deck’
April 18, 2020, is a day that Heather Elizabeth Brown will never forget. It was the day that after receiving countless negative COVID-19 tests throughout the month and being sent home from the hospital twice, Brown was finally admitted as a COVID-19 patient. Her journey would then include a 31-day medically induced coma, a stroke, blood clots, and two blood transfusions.
Now, more than two years later, Brown is still feeling the effects of her COVID-19 diagnosis. As a result of being diagnosed with COVID-19, she has developed COVID-induced diabetes, hair loss, lymphedema, and brain fog. When describing her recovery process she told The Observer, “I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, I have an emotional support animal.”
Heather Brown is not the only one with this experience; in fact, she is just one of the growing community of people with long Covid, the “long haulers.” Long haulers are defined as people who have been infected with COVID-19 and experience long-term effects, lasting from weeks to months or longer. The symptoms of long COVID vary in range and intensity. One study found that more than 200 symptoms were reported by long haulers. Officially, the CDC recognizes 19 symptoms including fatigue, post-exertional malaise, chest pain, brain fog, and pins-and-needles feelings.
“Every nerve ending in my body suddenly felt like it had five cups of coffee or was dipped in an Alka-Seltzer,” Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) told The Harvard Crimson. “This nerve tingling issue that I have has never gone away.”
Senator Kaine and Heather Brown are part of the estimated 10 to 30 percent of COVID-19 survivors who develop long Covid. Anywhere between 7.7 to 23 million people have been impacted by these long-term effects, and in the latest report from the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, these individuals were found to be quite young. Their findings show that people in the prime working ages of 25-54 are reporting experiencing symptoms of long Covid more than individuals 65 and older. This same report found that 79.8 percent of those with long Covid who are of prime working age report symptoms that limit their daily activities; 23.7 percent of them report that their daily activities were limited “a lot.”
The debilitating effect of long Covid has greatly affected our workforce, with wide-ranging impacts. Using the latest Household Pulse Survey, Brookings Institution estimates that up to 4 million workers are out of work because of long Covid. The annual cost of those lost wages ranges between $170 to $230 billion a year.
Carrie Anna McGinn is one of the 4 million who was told she would never work again. McGinn had worked as a community health worker and lived an active lifestyle before being infected with COVID-19. After testing positive she soon began to experience extreme fatigue and an abnormally high heartbeat. Months later McGinn would learn that her COVID-19 infection had triggered a condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome or POTS. This condition changed her life. While she used to be an avid hiker, she is now forced to use a wheelchair as even standing in the kitchen can be exhausting. McGinn told Bloomberg, “It still feels like I’m running a marathon when I’m just standing there washing my hair.”
Current studies estimate “that 2 to 14 percent of COVID-19 survivors will develop POTS and 9 to 61 percent will experience POTS-like symptoms, such as tachycardia and palpitations, within 6-8 months of infection.”
The need for concern is real. Dr. Kevin Shah, a cardiologist at the University of Utah Health, described the increase in POTS patients since the COVID-19 pandemic as an “all-hands-on-deck” situation, also stating that even patients infected with mild cases of COVID-19 can develop the syndrome.
“It’s still very important to avoid contracting COVID-19 because it’s hard to predict who may develop a condition such as POTS,” he said.
In a few weeks, the world will hit its 3-year mark since the beginning of the pandemic. While we have come far, we must go farther.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center identified four key factors needed to support long haulers: prevention, medical research, health care, and social insurance. These recommendations include investing in COVID-19 prevention nationally and worldwide, establishing a National Institute on Complex Chronic Conditions which would be properly funded to continue to research the disease, creating accessible long Covid clinics, and removing barriers that discriminate against people with long-term disabilities.
The federal government must do its part to protect long haulers and prevent future COVID-19 outbreaks. There are millions of people worldwide who have been and still are suffering from the effects of COVID-19. These long haulers are carrying the weight without support, and action must be taken at a federal level to lift the load.