Long Covid impacts millions, what’s being done about it?
What’s happening? Long Covid patients in the UK are enduring a “postcode lottery” for getting care, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). The union said some NHS services are treating the illness as a psychological condition, while others as a physical ailment. In England, some patients are waiting more than 15 weeks to be assessed by one of the country’s specialist adult clinics. In Scotland and Wales, there are no dedicated clinics, meaning that some patients may not be getting treatment from core NHS services. (BBC)
Why does this matter? Most people recover from Covid-19 within a few weeks, but others may develop long Covid, which can last for weeks, months and even years and doesn’t appear to depend on the severity of the original infection.
There’s a wide range of possible symptoms that can impact both physical and mental health and there’s still much to learn about how it will affect people in the long term. Currently, there’s no diagnostic to determine if an individual is suffering from the condition and no internationally agreed definition of it.
Who’s being impacted? Although anyone can develop long Covid, the UK’s Office for National Statistics suggests it disproportionately affects people aged between 35 and 49, women, individuals with underlying conditions that limit activity, workers in health, social care and education and those living in poorer areas. It’s been estimated 200 million people globally have previously experienced long-term effects arising from Covid-19 infection, or are currently experiencing them.
Imperial College London immunologist Danny Altman has warned that it’s possible that a whole generation could be impacted by disabilities related to the condition. Without action, he says people could be left jobless and homeless, with some even becoming suicidal.
Are there any treatments? Long Covid closely resembles myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), otherwise known as chronic fatigue syndrome, which is also commonly triggered by an acute viral infection. Despite the first outbreak of ME being recorded in 1934, there is still much debate on how it should be treated and the same can be said for long Covid. Doctors are disagreeing on how different treatments should be used and patients seem to be struggling to get their voices heard.
With such variable symptoms, which can come and go over time, a personalised and multidisciplinary approach to care – like that being offered by the above mentioned NHS dedicated clinics – appears to be the best option. However, with such long waiting lists, patients are understandably frustrated.
A similar situation exists in the US. In some cases patients are turning to alternative providers and wellness companies claiming to provide miracle cures, which are potentially dangerous. It’s also worth noting that confusion over long Covid symptoms could mean other diseases, such as cancer, may be missed, particularly among younger people.
What about work? Some people with long Covid have been left unable to work, leaving them to rely on savings or benefits if they can access them. Others would like to continue working or to find a job but will need workplace adjustments. Employers that are re-opening their offices should be prepared for a growing number of staff reporting that they have the condition.
A good place to start is to educate themselves about how the more typical symptoms – such as brain fog, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal issues and post-exertional malaise – can impact an individual’s ability to work. They also need to reduce the risk of disability discrimination claims, which can be achieved by considering reasonable adjustments, such as flexible working and changes to responsibilities. Developing policies, similar to those implemented for other chronic diseases or disabilities would also help companies reinforce staff trust and retention.