Many people infected with COVID-19 recover from the virus within a few weeks, but there is a subset of COVID-19 survivors called “long haulers” that are puzzling doctors and researchers. And it’s not just people with severe COVID-19 infections that make up this category of survivors. Recent studies have shown that up to ~30% of patients who had COVID-19 but did not need to be hospitalized later developed some form of long-haul COVID1. Here we take a closer look at what we know about these complex cases.
According to Harvard Medical, long haulers are people who have not fully recovered from COVID-19 weeks or even months after first experiencing symptoms2. Some experience continuous symptoms of COVID-19, while others recover and subsequently relapse with previous or new symptoms. The constellation of symptoms experienced by long haulers is sometimes referred to as post-COVID-19 syndrome or post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC).
Symptoms experienced by COVID-19 long haulers can vary greatly, but some common symptoms include:
For doctors, brain fog is an especially perplexing symptom for long haulers. Patients have reported being confused, forgetful, or unable to concentrate on simple tasks, such as watching TV. And it’s not just those with severe cases of COVID-19 – a variety of long haulers have experienced brain fog including those who were asymptomatic or never hospitalized.
The scientific community is still trying to understand what exactly causes people to suffer from post-COVID-19 syndrome. Some researchers speculate that the SARS-CoV-2 infection causes long-lasting changes in the immune system, while others believe it triggers autonomic nervous system dysregulation, which can cause systemic issues with heart rate and blood pressure.
Anyone who has been infected with COVID-19 can become a long hauler, though doctors and researchers are still trying to understand who may be more vulnerable to prolonged COVID-19 infections. Certain factors such as increased age, higher Body Mass Index (BMI), or pre-existing health conditions may increase the likelihood of becoming a long hauler, though it’s important to note that anyone can experience post COVID-19 syndrome.
The COVID-19 long hauler phenomenon is still largely a mystery to researchers, but the scientific community is working towards gaining a better understanding of why some people can’t seem to shake the virus.
In February 2021, the National Institute of Health announced a 4-year, $1.15 billion initiative focused on learning more about how SARS-CoV-2 may lead to widespread and lasting symptoms, what, if any, factors predispose people to post-COVID-19 syndrome, and what long-term recovery looks like across the population.
In addition to national efforts to better understand long haul COVID, researchers are actively working with long haulers to gain valuable insight into the impacts of post-COVID-19 syndrome. One of our customers, Emory University, is establishing post-COVID clinics to provide follow-up care for long haulers. Cases will be investigated by groups of specialists, including cardiologists, psychiatrists, and rheumatologists. Through these clinics, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms behind long haul COVID. You can read more about Emory’s efforts here.
The scientific community has made significant progress on preventing and treating COVID infections, but there’s still a long way to go in understanding long haulers and how we can better prevent, treat, and support patients suffering from post-COVID-19 syndrome.
Learn more about our customers efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.