- Long COVID continues to persist for many people who have recovered from COVID-19.
- The White House has launched a research program to help diagnose and treat this condition.
- Experts say the U.S. healthcare system needs to ramp up to deal with the influx of cases.
- They say doctors need to become more familiar with symptoms to more accurately diagnose long COVID cases.
- They note that some researchers are looking at chronic fatigue syndrome for clues on how to best treat long COVID.
The White House has announced a national research action plan designed to help prevent, detect, and treat long COVID.
Experts are applauding the move for a variety of reasons.
“Having the government recognize long COVID and indeed invest in research and care is very important. That sends a signal to the private insurance industry that this is real. We’re all in this together, and they’re going to have to deal with it also,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline.
“Major medical centers such as my own, have created long COVID clinics, collecting patients with their spectrum of symptoms,” he added. “We’re learning how to better create diagnoses, and then how to help patients cope with the symptoms. And a variety of studies are now being started across the country to try to determine what is it about this virus that actually produces the long COVID syndrome.”
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However, the agency notes, that some people may be affected by symptoms for four or more weeks after their initial recovery from COVID-19.
These symptoms can be ongoing or new symptoms may persist for months. Symptoms may include fatigue, headache, brain fog, shortness of breath, and mood changes.
These post-illness conditions may also be referred to as long COVID, post-acute COVID-19, long-haul COVID, or chronic COVID.
“The most common symptoms are fatigue, tiredness, and not being able to return to their daily activities,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California Davis, told Healthline. “Brain fog or fuzzy thinking is quite common. The loss of taste and smell may be prolonged. And then this can cause interference with people’s sleeping, as well as a variety of gastrointestinal complaints, including nausea and vomiting.”
Blumberg said the U.S. health system is not yet equipped to deal with the potential influx of people experiencing long-term symptoms due to COVID-19.
“There’s certainly a lack of resources right now for patients with long COVID. And it’s clear that what’s needed is multidisciplinary teams, clinics, one-stop shops for patients to get evaluated for a variety of signs and symptoms that they’re experiencing,” he said.
“That’s why additional funding is needed and fortunately, people are advocating for this. That’s why the White House funding is so important. It’s a good start. And then there needs to be recognition from insurance companies and others to provide the reimbursement that’s needed so that these clinics can get going.”
Part of the problem in preparing the healthcare system for this challenge is identifying those who are experiencing long COVID. Schaffner says this is something that physicians have become more familiar with over the past six months.
“There’s nothing that we can do to just send a specimen of blood, for example, off to the laboratory and get a test that comes back positive or negative. It’s a collection of symptoms,” he explained.
“So the average doctor, the family doctor, and the internists are just now becoming acquainted with the constellation of symptoms that might well constitute long COVID. So they’re making the diagnosis, I think a bit more frequently than they did, let’s say six months ago,” Schaffner added.
Long COVID has many similarities with chronic fatigue syndrome, also referred to as myalgic encephalomyelitis.
So far, physicians have looked to chronic fatigue syndrome as an example of how to treat long COVID.
“Most of the treatment options, take the treatments that have been used for chronic fatigue syndrome and try to apply that to long COVID. And many of those seem to be effective. And then for the loss of taste and smell, there is taste and smell training that also does appear to be effective,” Blumberg said.
“We’ve seen people who get into these programs that are modeled after the chronic fatigue syndrome model for treatment… They make a difference. And so I think there is hope,” he added.
Treatment options at long COVID clinics include counseling, mild physical exercises, mental health therapies, medications, physical therapy, and pulmonary rehabilitation.
When it comes to preventing long COVID, Blumberg says the best strategy is to avoid contracting the disease.
“You can prevent long COVID by preventing COVID in the first place,” he said. “So, taking advantage of vaccination, masking when there are relatively high rates of transmission in the community and you’re with people outside your household. Those are the primary things that can be done to decrease the risk of transmission so that you’re not at risk for long COVID.”