55% of COVID-19 patients are still symptomatic 2 years later

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Many people who had COVID-19 in 2020 still suffer from ongoing health problems. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
  • Two years later, a study from China assessed the current health status of some of the first COVID-19 survivors.
  • Researchers found that half of them continue to experience COVID-19 symptoms, or “long COVID.”
  • In general, early COVID-19 survivors are in poorer health two years later than people who did not develop COVID-19.

The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China December 2019. It has now been more than two years since the start of the outbreak related to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.

Since then, many COVID-19 survivors have reported ongoing health problems or symptoms that suddenly appear months and even a year after initial infection.

A new study two years later examined the current condition of COVID-19 patients from Wuhan.

Of the people researchers evaluated for the study, half said they had at least one long-standing COVID symptom two years after becoming acutely infected.

The study was published in THE LANCET respiratory medicine.

dr David F. Putrino, associate professor of rehabilitation and human performance at Mount Sinai, New York, who was not involved with the study, said Medical news today:

“We are incredibly concerned about this. Although new variants and vaccines appear to have reduced the overall risk of long COVID, there is still a relatively large proportion of people who have long COVID symptoms after an acute infection and we are incredibly concerned that this is becoming an event with mass obstruction will result.”

“[I]If we allow COVID-19 to spread at its current rate, there is an increasing likelihood that we will experience a major mass disability event.”
— dr David F Putrino

The new study, led by Professor Bin Cao of the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing, China, is the first to report on the health of people who had acute SARS-CoV-2 infection two years ago.

The 2,469 study participants were all discharged from Jin Yin-tan Hospital between January 7 and May 29, 2020. 1,119 of them chose to continue undergoing hospital examinations and interviews two years after infection.

“This is surprising, and there are no other studies that can look two years after an acute illness,” said Dr. James R. Heath, president and professor at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, WA not involved with the study, tells MNT.

“There were reports that lasted maybe six months or even a year I think, but mostly of mild infections,” he said.

Six months after acute infection, 68% of participants reported symptoms of long COVID, and by two years that number had dropped to 55%.

However, the study authors write that long COVID symptoms at two years are associated with reduced quality of life, lower physical capacity, abnormal mental health, and increased utilization of health services after discharge.

The most common long-term COVID symptoms at two years were muscle weakness or fatigue and trouble sleeping, both reported by 31% of participants.

“We already know that long COVID, in its various guises, is a big problem,” said Dr. Heath, “particularly in patients with severe disease, but also in patients with only mild infections…In these patients, the chronic symptoms appear to resolve more quickly.”

“This is incredibly worrying given that long-term COVID affects not only hospitalized patients, but also non-hospitalized patients (who have not been studied here). This study [s]serves as a reminder that death is not the only serious consequence of acute COVID-19 infection.”
— dr David F Putrino

After two years, 89% of the participants had returned to their original work.

dr Angela Cheung, a professor at the University of Toronto, who was also not involved in the study, addressed what the future may hold for people with COVID-19.

“Long-term effects of COVID-19 (long COVID) may depend on a number of factors: treatments patients received when they were acutely ill, number and type of vaccinations they received before contracting COVID-19, dose of the virus , host response as well as the variant (e.g. Omicron vs. Delta),” she said.

“Therefore,” said Dr. Cheung, “It is difficult to predict the medical future of COVID-19 survivors. The current numbers are huge, but I hope that with time and treatment they will go down.

dr Heath said such findings will “almost certainly” lead to treatments as scientists’ understanding of long-COVID expands rapidly.

“However, it will take a number of years to test these treatments in appropriate double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, and there are likely multiple etiologies of the disease, meaning multiple treatments will be required,” he added.

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