The number of adults nationwide with long COVID is dropping, but 1 in 4 who do get it face health challenges so crushing they could lose the "ability to work or provide care to others," according to a CDC study released Thursday.
Medical experts on Long Island said the study reflected what they are seeing locally, and that long COVID remains a persistent problem, though one that gets insufficient attention.
In early June 2022, 7.5% of Americans 18 and older were suffering from long COVID, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By mid-June 2023, the figure had dropped to 6%, the study found.
But it also found that 26.4% of people with long COVID reported significant limitations in their ability to perform day-to-day activities in June 2023. That was about the same percentage as a year ago.
“It’s really putting some numbers on what we are experiencing,” said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health, of the CDC study.
“COVID has really impacted us. People very frequently have these post COVID conditions,” Hirsch said, adding that symptoms “persist for months or years after an acute COVID illness.”
Long COVID is a condition in which patients still have symptoms at least four weeks after the infection has cleared. In some people, the symptoms can linger for months or even years.
Symptoms can include “brain fog,” fatigue, headaches, difficulty breathing, joint and muscle pain, and ongoing loss of taste and smell, the CDC said. Another potential result of long COVID is heart disease, according to experts and researchers.
Heart attack-caused deaths rose during every COVID-19 virus surge. Worse, researchers have discovered, young people aren't supposed to have heart attacks but research has documented a nearly 30% increase in heart attack deaths among 25- to 44-year-olds in the pandemic's first two years.
An ominous sign the trouble may continue: High blood pressure is one of the biggest risks for heart disease and "people's blood pressure has actually measurably gone up over the course of the pandemic," said Dr. Susan Cheng, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles who has studied the pandemic's effect on heart health.
The National Institutes of Health is beginning small studies of a few possible treatments for certain long COVID symptoms, including heartbeat problems.
Cheng said patients and doctors alike need to know that sometimes, cardiovascular trouble is the first or main symptom of damage the coronavirus left behind.
"These are individuals who wouldn't necessarily come to their doctor and say, 'I have long COVID,' " she said.
Authors of the CDC study found that long COVID can limit the "ability to carry out day-to-day activities because …symptoms can have a significant impact on quality of life, functional status, and ability to work or provide care to others,"
The affliction "in U.S. adults has also been associated with lower likelihood of working full time and higher likelihood of being unemployed," the authors of the study wrote.
Still, there were reasons to be encouraged by the CDC's findings, Hirsch said, but like all things coronavirus-related since spring 2020, patience is required.
“The good news is that things get better. The bad news is that it takes a long time and different symptoms have different time courses,” he said.
The long COVID report was also encouraging, said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, because it found that symptoms don’t “seem to stay for everyone as long. For some people it goes away over time.”
But it is worrisome that 1 in 4 people with long COVID find it debilitating, Clouston added.
“That’s the scariest thing about the report," he said. "It looks like a lot of people have lingering symptoms for quite a long time.”
The CDC report based its data on the Household Pulse Survey, which collects data on how people's lives have been affected by COVID-19.
Somewhere between 7.7 million and 23 million Americans have developed long COVID during the pandemic, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates.
Hirsch said that while many people think the COVID-19 pandemic is over, the report shows that for others, it remains a persistent source of upheaval in their lives.
“It’s not something that is getting a lot of attention,” Hirsch said. “But we have to remember people who are still ill. It still is a major issue, and we can’t forget that.”