Study: One-third of ‘mostly young and healthy’ people develop long COVID symptoms

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Long COVID affected 36% of the students, faculty, and staff recovering from SARS-CoV-2 infection at a U.S. university and was significantly more common in unvaccinated people, research published in Emerging Infectious Diseases shows.

The study analyzed 1,338 people who developed COVID-19 at George Washington University (GWU) from July 2021 to March 2022. Participants completed confidential surveys, initially through telephone interviews and later using an electronic platform, and provided information about their health in the 39 to 158 days after the end of their isolation periods. The median follow-up was 57 days.

More than one-third (36%) of the participants reported symptoms of long COVID. People with underlying health conditions were statistically more likely to develop long COVID, as were participants who were not fully vaccinated and those who were former or current smokers, or who experienced acute COVID-19 symptoms.

The severity of the initial acute infection also significantly correlated to the risk of long COVID. Ongoing health problems were more common in people who reported higher symptom counts and who sought medical care for COVID-19. Females were more likely to develop long COVID than males.

Lynn Goldman, dean of the GWU Milken Institute School of Public Health and senior author of the study, compared the figures from the “mostly young and healthy population” in the university dataset to long COVID rates in other groups.

“We saw prevalence rates of long COVID symptoms that are consistent with other studies that have been published in the U.S.,” Goldman said in a statement. “Our findings also are consistent with previous research underscoring the importance of getting the COVID vaccine and staying up to date with boosters -- which protect against a serious initial illness as well as developing long COVID.”

Goldman’s paper quotes an estimate that 1 in 3 Americans who have SARS-CoV-2 infection will experience long COVID symptoms, as well as prevalence figures from other studies that range from 10% to 80%. The wide range may partly reflect the lack of a universally accepted definition of long COVID.

Whatever the exact rate, there is now a body of evidence showing that at least a large minority of people develop symptoms of long COVID. The Emerging Infectious Diseases study discusses what that means for academic institutions that collectively may employ and treat thousands of people who are living with ongoing symptoms.

“Because long COVID can greatly interfere with the ability to learn or work, classroom or job accommodations, such as modifying academic and workplace policies, flexible scheduling, changing workplace environment, enabling remote or alternative learning and modifying job responsibilities, are recommended for those having long COVID,” the authors wrote.

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