Thousands of coronavirus patients risk going without treatment and support for debilitating symptoms lasting months because of a lack of awareness of ‘long COVID’, according to a group formed by clinicians with extended serious after-effects of the virus.
Many members of the 100-strong Facebook group UK doctors: COVID “Long tail” have been unable to work for weeks after failing to recover from an episode of COVID-19. They warn of the need for clinical recognition of “long COVID,” along with systems to log symptoms and manage patients in the community. Without this, there could be major consequences for return to work across all professions, as well as implications for disease prevention.
Three of the group: Dr Amali Lokugamage, consultant obstetrician at the Whittington Hospital; Dr Sharon Taylor, child psychiatrist at St Mary’s Hospital London, and Dr Clare Rayner, a retired occupational health physician and lecturer at the University of Manchester, have highlighted their concerns in The BMJ and on social media groups. They say colleagues are observing a range of symptoms of long COVID in their practices.
These include cardiac, gut and respiratory symptoms, skin manifestations, neurological and psychiatric symptoms, severe fatigue, and relapsing fevers, sometimes continuing for more than 16 weeks, and which they say go well beyond definitions of chronic fatigue. The authors are also aware of a pattern of symptom clusters recurring every third or fourth day, which in some cases are so severe that people are having to take extended periods of sick leave.
Writing in The BMJ the authors say: “Concerns have been raised about the lack of awareness among NHS doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other healthcare professionals with regard to the prolonged, varied, and weird symptoms [of COVID-19].”
Speaking to Medscape News UK, Dr. Clare Rayner said: “We see a huge need that is not being met, because these cases are just not being seen in hospital. All the attention has been on the acute illness.”
She pointed to the urgent need for government planning for a surge in people requiring support to return to work following long-term COVID-19 symptoms. According to occupational health research, only 10-40% of people who take 6 weeks off work return to work, dropping to 5%-10% after an absence of 6 months.
In her own case, she is recovering after 4 months of illness, including a hospital admission with gut symptoms and dehydration, and 2 weeks of social service home support. She has experienced a range of relapsing and remitting symptoms, which she describes as ‘bizarre and coming in phases’.
The recently-announced NHS portal for COVID-19 patients has been welcomed by the authors as an opportunity for long-standing symptoms to reach the medical and Government radar. But Dr Taylor believes it should have been set up from the start with input from patients with symptoms, to make sure that any support provided reflects the nature of the problems experienced.
In her case, as a previously regular gym attender with a resting heart rate in the 50s, she has now been diagnosed as having multi-organ disease affecting her heart, spleen, lung, and autonomic system. She has fluid on the lungs and heart, and suffers from continuous chest pain and oxygen desaturation when lying down. She has not been able to work since she contracted COVID-19 in March.
“COVID patients with the chronic form of the disease need to be involved in research right from the start to ensure the right questions are asked - not just those who have had acute disease,” she insists to Medscape News UK. “We need to gather evidence, to inform the development of a multi-disciplinary approach and a range of rehabilitation options depending on the organs involved.
“The focus needs to be on stimulating recovery and preventing development of chronic problems. We still don’t know if those with chronic COVID disease are infectious, how long their prolonged cardio-respiratory and neurological complications will last, and crucially whether treatment will reduce the duration of their problems. The worry is that left unattended, these patients may develop irreversible damage leading to chronic illness.”