Covid Is Still Impacting People Two Years After They Were Infected

The virus continues to linger for people who were hospitalised at the start of the pandemic.
Half of the people who were hospitalised with Covid are still symptomatic two years later
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Half of the people who were hospitalised with Covid are still symptomatic two years later

More than half of patients who were hospitalised with Covid during the pandemic still experience at least one symptom two years after their first infection, according to new findings.

In the longest study of its kind, research published in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine has revealed that even after being discharged, these Covid patients still experience a lower quality of life and poorer health compared to the rest of the general public.

Lead author Professor Bin Cao from the China-Japan Friendship hospital said: “Our findings indicate that for a certain proportion of hospitalised Covid-19 survivors, while they may have cleared the initial infection, more than two years is needed to recover fully.”

The research is particularly eye-opening because the long-term effects of contracting Covid have been, for the most part, unknown until now. The longest study before this looked at patients for around 12 months.

How was the study conducted?

The experts looked at how 1,192 patients who had acute Covid and were hospitalised in Wuhan (the Chinese province where the disease first broke out) between January 7 and May 29 2020. The patient’s average age at discharge was 57.

The study then checked in with the individuals at six months, 12 months and two years.

They had to take part in a six-minute walking test, lab tests, questionnaires on their symptoms, mental health, quality of life linked to their health, and if they had gone back to work along with their use of healthcare facilities.

For comparison, there was a control group of people who had no history of Covid infection.

What did the study find?

Half a year after the initial infection, 68% of patients reported at least one long Covid symptom. Two years later, this number dropped to 55%, with 31% reporting fatigue and muscle weakness.

Around 11% of the individuals in the study had still not returned to work.

The participants were also more likely to report other symptoms including joint pain, palpitations, dizziness and headaches along with extra pain, discomfort, anxiety and depression compared to the control group.

Professor Cao said: “Ongoing follow-up of Covid-19 survivors, particularly those with symptoms of long Covid, is essential to understand the longer course of illness, as is further exploration of the benefits of rehabilitation programmes for recovery.

“There is a clear need to provide continued support to a significant proportion of people who’ve had Covid-19, and to understand how vaccines, emerging treatments and variants affect long-term health outcomes.”

But the findings are not concrete

As all individuals involved in the study were treated at Jin Yin-tan Hospital, it’s not clear what variants they were infected with.

The impact of the virus on an individual’s health is thought to vary according to which strain they were infected with – new data has even suggested that Omicron is less likely to trigger long Covid than Delta.

Many of the symptoms in the study were self-reported too, meaning there is a chance of information bias.

How many people have long Covid in the UK?

According to Office for National Statistics, around 1.3 million living in private households experienced self-reported long Covid symptoms as of January 2022.

This means more than four weeks after their suspected infection, people are still experiencing Covid symptoms, particularly fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell and loss of taste.

The prevalence of it is greatest in people aged between 35 and 69 in particular women, people who live in more deprived areas, those who work in health care, social care, teaching and education, or those with another underlying health condition.

Is the rate of new Covid cases in the UK dropping?

New infections in the UK were steadily falling but have now plateaued. The ZOE Covid Study predicts that UK cases will stall around 100,000 per day.

Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the ZOE app, said: “It is too early at this stage to know what is causing the slowdown but it’s a strong signal that Covid is not going to disappear for summer.”

However, the number of hospital patients in England with Covid has dropped to below 10,000 in the UK, suggesting infections are not causing such severe symptoms at the moment.

Hospital patients in England with Covid-19.
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Hospital patients in England with Covid-19.