By Amy Harris
Most people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, recover fully within a few days or weeks. However, about one out of every 10 people continues to experience a range of symptoms, including feeling tired or weak, brain fog, shortness of breath, and sleep problems for weeks or months after becoming infected. Scientists and doctors want to know why some people get long COVID and others do not.
Doctors are not yet able to effectively treat long COVID, because they don’t know its causes. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is looking for answers and MaineHealth Institute for Research (MHIR) is involved in the research. The Maine portion of the study, called PROMIS, will study whether the SARS-CoV2 virus remains trapped in the fat tissue of patients with long COVID.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, Hispanic respondents and Black respondents were more likely than white respondents to suffer from long COVID. Additionally, according to the survey, financial insecurity appears to be related to long COVID.
Continued study of the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection is necessary to keep people healthy and safe. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and Center for Health Statistics, the number of people in the U.S. with long COVID symptoms decreased between June 2022 and January 2023. While this decline is partially because fewer people are getting infected with COVID, it also reflects a trend seen in other studies – most people with long COVID feel better within one year.
Scientists believe COVID-19 infection can trigger a person’s immune system to make antibodies. These antibodies then attack their own organs and tissues. This autoimmune response causes inflammation and other symptoms that can trigger health conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease.
Researchers have also observed that children and teenagers can develop long COVID, even if they never have symptoms of COVID-19 when first infected. In addition, people who are female, older, have other medical conditions like diabetes, obesity, asthma, were hospitalized with their initial COVID-19 infection, and did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine were more likely to have long COVID.
Long COVID providers and researchers have found that exercise may be harmful to people with long COVID who have post-exertional malaise, which is when long COVID-19 symptoms worsen after even minor physical or mental effort.
People who think they may have long COVID should talk with their primary care providers. Even without a cure, providers can help manage symptoms. They may also be able to help patients access the health and social supports necessary for coping with disability resulting from long COVID.
Providers also can help patients to enroll in RECOVER (Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery), a nationwide NIH-funded study of long COVID. Compensation may be available. Pregnant people and children can participate in some studies. The greater the diversity of people who participate in the study, the more answers doctors and scientists will find about how to prevent, test for, and treat long COVID.
Note: Long COVID, long-haul COVID, post-COVID-19 conditions, chronic COVID, and post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 (PASC) are all names for conditions experienced months after a COVID-19 infection.