Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, public attention has mainly focused on the number of people who become severely ill and die from COVID-19. But what’s become clear in recent months is the large and growing group of people who continue to deal with prolonged symptoms long after their original illness.

In a recent study posted on the preprint server medRxiv, analysis of an international survey of more than 3,700 respondents with COVID-19 found that over two-thirds were still experiencing numerous symptoms at 6 months, with significant impacts on patients’ lives and livelihoods. Respondents with symptoms for more than 6 months said they are experiencing an average of nearly 14 symptoms across multiple organ systems.

That study has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it adds to a growing body of literature on prolonged COVID-19 symptoms. An Italian study published in JAMA in July found that 87% of 143 hospitalized COVID-19 patients had at least one symptom 2 months after illness onset. A study published this month in The Lancet found that more than three quarters of 1,655 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China, had at least one symptom 6 months after discharge.

With more than 95 million confirmed COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, these reports are likely just the tip of the “Long COVID” iceberg. And while the world is currently focused on driving down new infections, reducing deaths and hospitalizations, administering new vaccines, and getting the pandemic under control, public health experts are starting to turn their attention to these “long-haulers,” as they’ve come to be known, and the mechanisms behind their lingering symptoms

Speaking at a recent online workshop on post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, said the issue urgently needs to be studied given the number of people who’ve been infected.

“This is a phenomenon that is really quite real and quite extensive,” Fauci said. “Even a small proportion with post-acute sequelae are going to represent a significant public health issue.”

Yesterday NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, highlighted the problem on his director’s blog and encouraged long-haulers to participate in an ongoing study.

‘I just never got well’

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