Just as we continue to learn about acute Covid-19 infections on a daily basis, we are also learning about the condition most commonly known as “long Covid.” Additionally referred to as “long haul Covid,” “chronic Covid,” and “post-acute Covid-19,” it was first identified in the months following the first wave of the pandemic. Some individuals who suffered from acute Covid-19 infections as early as March 2020 had persistent issues with fatigue, memory issues, “brain fog,” breathing issues, and altered sense of smell or taste for weeks or months after infection. Some of these folks, now over two years after recovering from their illness, are still living with the effects of long Covid.
Long Covid is now considered to be a disability under the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act. If any symptoms related to long Covid impact a person’s daily activities, they are entitled to “the same protections from discrimination as any other person with a disability under the ADA,” according to the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Just as different variants have been met with differing symptoms and likelihood of severe illness, we are gradually gaining insight into the risk of long Covid based on the variants we’ve seen thus far. A study published in the June 18, 2022 issue of The Lancet assessed the likelihood of developing long Covid following infection with the delta SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) variant versus the omicron variant. The work, which took place in the United Kingdom and was supported by the UK Department of Health, utilized self-reporting of post-Covid-19 symptoms in those who developed Covid-19 infections during the omicron surge, between December 2021 and March 2022, compared to those who developed acute infections during the delta surge, between June 2021 and November 2021.
Long Covid is defined as “having new or ongoing symptoms 4 weeks or more after the start of acute COVID-19” in this and other studies and reports. All subjects in the study had been vaccinated against Covid-19, and the average age of study subjects was 53 years. There were just over 56,000 enrolled following omicron infections, and just over 41,000 enrolled following delta infections. The variants were presumed to be omicron or delta based on the timing of the infection correlating to the prevalent variant at each given time period.
Of the subjects with omicron, 4.5% described long Covid symptoms, versus 10.8% in the delta variant group. The timing of prior vaccination had no bearing on these differences.
As we continue to be immersed in the omicron surge, now with sub-variants continuing to plague much of the world, it is likely that long Covid will become more and more prevalent. While the overall percent risk of long Covid is lower in omicron than in prior surges, the high absolute numbers of people suffering from omicron infections will soon translate into absolutely higher numbers of people suffering from long Covid in the months and even years to come.
The numbers of omicron-infected people has already surpassed the numbers of those infected by all prior variants. And while many are experiencing milder disease courses, many others are experiencing severe illness, and many will unfortunately go on to develop long Covid.