As the United States has just surpassed a grim Covid-19 milestone – one million deaths caused by SARS-CoV-2 – a new study conducted by FAIR Health has found that 76 percent of patients diagnosed with long Covid did not require hospitalization for their initial coronavirus infection. These findings paint a sobering picture of long Covid’s significant and ongoing impact on people’s health and the US health care system.
Long Covid is a complex constellation of lingering or new post-infection symptoms that can last for months or even longer. According to a recent report of the US Government Accountability Office, between 7.7 million and 23 million Americans may have developed this condition during the pandemic. Yet, long Covid’s prevalence, causes, consequences, and potential treatments remain largely unclear.
Although previous studies have argued that patients who had been hospitalized during the acute phase of the infection were at greater risk for developing long Covid, FAIR Health’s new study has shown that even people with mild to moderate symptoms, who did not require hospitalization, can still experience debilitating post-infection symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and a wide range of cognitive and memory disturbances.
Thus, long Covid is “generating a pandemic of people who were not hospitalized, but who ended up with this increased disability,” said Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, an assistant professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study.
By analyzing data from private health insurance claims in the United States, the researchers found that over two-thirds of patients diagnosed with long Covid were not hospitalized during their initial infection. While the majority of these people had pre-existing health conditions in their medical records, over one quarter did not – a much higher percentage than expected. Nearly 35 percent of them were aged 36 to 50, one third 51 to 64, and 17 percent 23 to 35. These findings suggest quite a massive impact of long Covid on young, previously healthy individuals.
Since the study only covered patients with private health insurance, it has most probably underestimated the scope and burden of long Covid. However, it clearly shows “how many people are leaving their jobs, how many are being given disability status, how much absenteeism is there in school,” as Robin Gelburd, the president of FAIR Health, put it. “It’s like a pebble thrown into the lake, and these ripples circling that pebble are concentric circles of impact.”
“Post-Covid syndrome is going to become perhaps one of the most common pre-existing comorbidities going forward,” concluded Dr. Ssentongo.
The study can be found here.