Anybody who tells you that getting this virus is no big deal is full of shit.

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

Nearly a year into the global coronavirus pandemic, scientists, doctors and patients are beginning to unlock a puzzling phenomenon: For many patients, including young ones who never required hospitalization, Covid-19 has a devastating second act.

Many are dealing with symptoms weeks or months after they were expected to recover, often with puzzling new complications that can affect the entire body—severe fatigue, cognitive issues and memory lapses, digestive problems, erratic heart rates, headaches, dizziness, fluctuating blood pressure, even hair loss.

What is surprising to doctors is that many such cases involve people whose original cases weren’t the most serious, undermining the assumption that patients with mild Covid-19 recover within two weeks. Doctors call the condition “post-acute Covid” or “chronic Covid,” and sufferers often refer to themselves as “long haulers” or “long-Covid” patients.

“Usually, the patients with bad disease are most likely to have persistent symptoms, but Covid doesn’t work like that,” said Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care at the University of Oxford and the lead author of an August BMJ study that was among the first to define chronic Covid patients as those with symptoms lasting more than 12 weeks and spanning multiple organ systems.

For many such patients, she said, “the disease itself is not that bad,” but symptoms like memory lapses and rapid heart rate sometimes persist for months.

Estimates about the percentage of Covid-19 patients who experience long-haul symptoms range widely. A recent survey of more than 4,000 Covid-19 patients found that about 10% of those age 18 to 49 still struggled with symptoms four weeks after becoming sick, that 4.5% of all ages had symptoms for more than eight weeks, and 2.3% had them for more than 12 weeks. The study, which hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, was performed using an app created by the health-science company Zoe in cooperation with King’s College London and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Another preliminary study looking mostly at nonhospitalized Covid patients found that about 25% still had at least one symptom after 90 days. A European study found about one-third of 1,837 nonhospitalized patients reported being dependent on a caregiver about three months after symptoms started.

With more than 46 million cases world-wide, even the lower estimates would translate into millions living with long-term, sometimes disabling conditions, increasing the urgency to study this patient population, researchers said. What they find could have implications for how clinicians define recovery and what therapies they prescribe, doctors said.

This is not the first study to reach these conclusions, but it is yet one more reminder that we still know very little about this virus and that the long term effects may take us years to fully understand. 

In the meantime, our best defense is to keep ourselves isolated from those who pose a threat of infection and to protect our loved ones from a similar fate.