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Roughly 15% of all Americans are suffering from long COVID

A recent study from University College London and Dartmouth has found that at least one in seven people in the United States had experienced long COVID by the end of 2022. This condition, characterized by persistent symptoms following an initial COVID-19 infection, has been linked to a range of health and well-being challenges.

“Although yet to be clearly identified as a clinical condition, there is immense concern at the health and wellbeing consequences of long COVID,” wrote the study authors.

“Using data collected from nearly half a million Americans in the period June 2022-December 2022 in the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS), we find 14 percent reported suffering long COVID at some point, half of whom reported it at the time of the survey.”

Persistent impacts of long COVID

The research highlights the associations between long COVID and an array of psychological and physical difficulties. Professor Alex Bryson from the UCL Social Research Institute, a co-author of the study, emphasized the persistent impact of long COVID on daily living. 

“Little is known about long Covid and its impact on health and well-being, but there is a growing body of evidence that many people experience persistent and concerning symptoms,” said Professor Bryson.

“Here, we have found that long Covid continues to affect millions of people in the US, with some groups much more affected than others. Those who have ever had long Covid remain more likely to report low mood, challenges in carrying out daily tasks, and challenges with memory, concentration and understanding, compared to people who have never had long Covid.”

Focus of the study

The researchers analyzed data from over 460,000 responses to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, spanning June to December 2022. 

The goal of the analysis was to compare people who said they had never had Covid-19, with those who had a Covid-19 infection without lingering symptoms, and those who currently or previously had long Covid.

The experts found that nearly half of the individuals surveyed had contracted COVID-19, with 14 percent reporting long-term symptoms. Notably, survey respondents who had been vaccinated appeared to exhibit a lower risk of anxiety and low mood.

Lingering symptoms from long COVID

For this study, the criteria for long COVID aligned with that of the World Health Organization. The reported symptoms included anxiety and depression, mobility issues, and cognitive challenges.

“It has become increasingly apparent that a significant proportion of the population continue to report COVID symptoms long after initial infection,” wrote the study authors. 

“This condition, which has come to be known as ‘long COVID,’ has yet to be clearly identified as a clinical condition, but is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the continuation or development of new symptoms three months after the initial infection, with these symptoms lasting for at least 2 months with no other explanation.”

Prevalence of long COVID

The experts identified disparities in the prevalence of long COVID, with higher rates observed in women, white individuals, middle-aged groups, and those with lower income or education levels. Geographically, the incidence varied across states, with West Virginia (18%) and Hawaii (11%) at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Long-term complications 

One of the more concerning revelations of the study is that long COVID symptoms were more prevalent among individuals who had suffered from severe symptoms during their initial bout with COVID-19. This data suggests that there is a possible correlation between the intensity of the initial infection and the likelihood of developing long-term complications.

The experts caution that the study has limitations, including reliance on self-reported data and the possibility of undiagnosed COVID-19 cases among the survey respondents. 

“Notwithstanding these new findings much remains to be learned about the nature, determinants and consequences of long COVID which will only be revealed in time with the advent of new data,” wrote the researchers.

“In particular, exploiting longitudinal data tracking individuals over time could be particularly informative since in the current study the cross-sectional nature of the data makes it hard to make causal inferences about the impact of Long COVID and the potential value of vaccinations.”

Study implications 

The findings highlight the need for further research to understand the mechanisms of long COVID and the full spectrum of its symptoms, as well as to explore the impact of vaccination on the condition’s development and severity.

As the scientific community continues to investigate the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, studies like this one shed crucial light on the challenges faced by millions and the importance of continued vigilance in public health measures and support for affected individuals.

Study highlights

“We have exploited new data for nearly half a million Americans on the prevalence of long COVID to explore its incidence and correlates, and the relationship between long COVID and physical and mental health problems. Long COVID is widespread. It has affected 14 percent of Americans at some point,” wrote the study authors.

“Its incidence varies markedly across sub-groups in the population. It is much higher among women than it is among men; it varies by ethnicity, being highest among whites; and it is hump-shaped in age, mimicking the age profile of negative affect which is highest in middle age.”

“It also varies greatly by location. It is highest in states in the south such as West Virginia and Mississippi – states where negative affect is high – and is lowest in Hawaii, notable for being the ‘happiest’ state in the United States.”

“Long COVID is independently associated with negative affect, however one measures it, and with physical mobility and mental health problems. These associations are strongest among those who report current symptoms of long COVID.”

More about the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey

The US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey provides real-time data on how people’s lives have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Launched in April 2020, this survey represents a vital tool for measuring the pandemic’s effect on individuals and households across the United States.

Purpose of the Household Pulse Survey

The primary aim of the Household Pulse Survey is to capture the breadth and depth of the pandemic’s impact on social and economic aspects of Americans’ lives.

It gauges employment status, spending patterns, food security, housing, education disruptions, and health issues related to COVID-19, including long COVID.

Real-time data collection

The survey collects data quickly, unlike traditional surveys that may take months or even years to report findings. This speed allows policymakers, health officials, and researchers to receive timely information, enabling them to make informed decisions during emergencies.

Survey methodology

The Household Pulse Survey uses an online questionnaire, making it accessible and efficient for participants. By utilizing email and text messages to reach out to potential respondents, the Census Bureau ensures a diverse and representative sample of the US population.

The questions within the Household Pulse Survey are designed to be flexible and relevant to the current stage of the pandemic. They are continually reviewed and updated to reflect the evolving situation and to capture the most pressing issues faced by households.

Informing public policy on long COVID

The survey results are disseminated in a user-friendly, interactive format. This approach makes it easier for individuals, communities, and organizations to understand and utilize the data.

Data from the Household Pulse Survey informs public policy by highlighting the needs of individuals and communities. Policymakers use this data to craft targeted responses to the economic and health aspects of the crisis.

Impact of the Household Pulse Survey

The Household Pulse Survey has had a profound impact by providing data that help to understand the pandemic’s effects on education, employment, mental health, housing stability, and food security.

The insights from the survey have guided the development and implementation of assistance programs. For instance, data on food scarcity have helped shape food assistance initiatives, while information on unemployment has informed job support schemes.

In summary, the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey stands as a critical tool in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By offering a detailed and dynamic picture of the pandemic’s impact, the survey supports the formulation of strategies to address the challenges faced by American households. Its real-time data continues to play an essential role in the nation’s ongoing recovery efforts.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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