Besides heart/lung symptoms, Gut said patients can have profound fatigue and neuro-cognitive changes — commonly dubbed “brain fog.” And those problems can even strike people who had milder COVID and never needed to be hospitalized, Gut said.
So while SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus, the resulting disease can have broad effects in the body.
“COVID is a whole-body illness,” Iwashyna said, “and so is long COVID.”
The findings, published recently in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, are based on the initial patients in a larger, ongoing government-funded study. It will follow up to 1,500 patients hospitalized for COVID at large hospitals across the United States.
Iwashyna’s team found that of 253 patients surveyed one month after discharge, about 55% said they had at least one new or worsening heart/lung symptom — most commonly a chronic cough.
Meanwhile, 53% said they had physical limitations that had not been present before, including problems with daily tasks such as shopping, carrying groceries or even walking around the house.
Besides the physical toll, the study found, there was a financial one: About 20% of patients said they’d either lost or had to change their job, while 38% said a loved one had taken time off from work to care for them.
Because long COVID is complex and varied, Gut said, there is no “one size fits all” way to manage the symptoms.
One way to help hospitalized patients is through home health services after discharge.
But, Iwashyna said, few patients in this study actually received those services — and there were hints that might have contributed to their disabilities. Of patients who reported new physical limitations, a full 77% had not received home health care.
“This makes me wonder, are we still underestimating how bad the long-term effects can be?” Iwashyna said.
Both he and Gut stressed a critical point: The best way to avert long COVID is to avoid getting COVID in the first place.
“Get vaccinated,” Iwashyna advised.
The vaccines are “not perfect,” he said, and breakthrough infections can sometimes occur. But they still slash the risk of getting sick, and are highly effective at keeping people out of the hospital.