August 6, 2020

How the lasting effects of COVID-19 make prevention more important than ever

By Accolade

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As social distancing measures remain in place, isolation take its toll, and many states and cities find themselves staring down the possibility of a renewed round of shutdowns, it’s easy to feel like we’ve all been living in a COVID-19 world for years. Despite how long it may feel sometimes, the world has only been aware of this novel coronavirus for a few months.

While researchers and doctors are quickly learning about the disease, there’s still a lot about it that we don’t know. And because it’s so new, there’s also much that remains unknown about what long-term impacts it may have on patient’s health after recovery. But patient testimonies suggest that for some, COVID-19 can be a months-long struggle with a variety of symptoms. Moreover, early research suggests that once obvious symptoms like coughing and joint pain have subsided, the virus may leave behind a legacy that could impact patient health for years to come.

“Doctors and researchers the world over are learning more about COVID-19 every day,” says Dr. Shantanu Nundy, Accolade’s Chief Medical Officer. “But this disease just hasn’t been around long enough for us to understand the full impact it will have on the long-term health of infected individuals.”

Meet the long-haulers

The lingering health impacts of COVID infection have given rise to a community of “long-haulers” – COVID patients who continue experiencing symptoms, or sometimes start experiencing new symptoms, for weeks and even months. While dependable numbers on long haulers are tough to come by, the continued prevalence of online communities where COVID long haulers can compare notes on symptoms, share advice, and support one another testifies to the fact that for a minority of patients, COVID can be a tough disease to shake.

The way long-haulers experience continuing COVID symptoms varies. Some report feeling better for a time, only to relapse into renewed rounds of symptoms like coughing, joint pain, loss of sense of smell, and trouble breathing. Others, like British professor Paul Garner, experience their symptoms consistently for months on end. Garner, a researcher at the Liverpool School for Tropical Medicine, contracted COVID-19 in March, and continues to feel its effects, which he has recounted in articles for the British Medical Journal.

While Garner’s case is extreme, early research into the topic suggests COVID symptoms lasting for two months or more may not be that unusual. Italian doctors surveyed 143 patients who had been treated for COVID in a hospital in Rome. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they reported that 60 days after discharge from the hospital, only 12.6% of patients reported no remaining COVID symptoms. More than half (55%) of respondents said they continued to experience three or more symptoms associated with COVID-19, including coughing, muscle pain, trouble breathing, and fatigue.

Unseen damages

More troubling even than the ongoing obvious symptoms of COVID-19, like a persistent cough, are early hints that the virus may also leave its mark on a patient’s health in less obvious ways. In the journal JAMA Cardiology, researchers examined the hearts of 100 individuals diagnosed with COVID at the University of Frankfurt Hospital following their recovery. MRI scans and bloodwork found that 60% of subjects tested showed ongoing inflammation of the heart, even after becoming otherwise asymptomatic.

Lasting impacts of a viral infection aren’t unusual, and have been reported in other coronavirus caused diseases as well. A 2011 study on Canadian patients who recovered from the SARS coronavirus found that a significant percentage reported symptoms like muscle pain and difficulty sleeping for as long as three years after their initial infection.

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the lingering impacts of the virus may not be the only cause for concern. Physicians warn that the extended isolation brought on by efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus can have their own impacts on people’s emotional and behavioral health. Even people who are able to largely stay home and avoid exposure to the coronavirus may find aspects of their health impacted by the current pandemic.

Doctors across the world are still studying COVID-19, and likely will be for years. But even in the early stages, one thing is clear – the best way to combat the disease is through prevention, not treatment.

“We know that COVID-19 can be a very serious condition in the short-term, and that we are still only scratching the surface of how it may affect patients’ health in the long run,” says Dr. Nundy. “Those two factors really drive home the importance of preventing this illness in every way we can, including maintaining social distancing, wearing masks in public, and having comprehensive strategies in place for preventing spread in workplaces, schools, and other settings.”

As states reopen only to consider shutting back down and institutions like public schools and universities vacillate on whether they’ll open their doors in the fall, it can be difficult to know what steps to take to ensure the health and safety of your team.

That’s why Accolade’s COVID Response Care exists – to help businesses ensure that their employees can limit their exposure to the disease, minimize their risks, and catch cases early before they can spread. To learn how the Accolade’s nurses, clinicians, and health assistants can support you now and down the road, schedule a demo today.