Some people question whether the pandemic is real. When I mention that I knew four people who died from it, they immediately want to know whether these folks had some other illness or infirmity (two did, two were otherwise healthy and fit before the virus struck; all died as a result of it).
Others say they don’t worry because they have had the virus, had mild symptoms and are therefore immune.
Armchair health experts abound.
That complacency is why I paid special attention to a new report from the Brookings Institution studying the problem of so-called “long COVID,” the long-term, debilitating side effects that can run the gamut from heart problems to difficulty breathing to brain fog, depression and, as one acquaintance described to me, pain in the feet, and a long list of other things that just don’t seem to go away.
If you have had a variant of COVID-19 — the study calculates 70% of you have — and you didn’t get long COVID-19 symptoms, you should feel lucky. You also ought to be a little afraid.
Some recent news stories have suggested that the more times you are infected by the virus, the greater your chance of long-term health risks. Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis and chief of research and development at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Healthcare System, told the Los Angeles Times, “The additive risk is really not trivial, not insignificant. It’s really substantial.”
While the Brookings report recommends a lot more study of this, as well as of the reasons some people get these symptoms while others don’t, it does cite a study, yet to be peer reviewed, that shows reinfections are a risk.
More importantly, the Brookings report uses census figures and other reports to reliably calculate that nearly a quarter of people who had COVID-19 developed symptoms lasting three months or more, and that between 2 million and 4 million American workers are currently unemployed due to long COVID-19. It suggests this may at least partially explain the labor shortage in “face-to-face industries” such as teaching, food services, hospitality, health care and other jobs.
Together, these 2 million to 4 million account for between $170 billion and $230 billion in lost wages over a year. Many others may remain employed but are far less effective than usual.
Unless the health industry can develop standardized treatment for these symptoms, understand what causes them and whether vaccines and reinfections reduce or increase the odds of getting them, this economic burden will rise, the report said.
The first step is to understand that real people are feeling these effects. The Washington Post recently told the stories of some of them, including John Buccellato, a 64-year-old emergency medicine doctor at a clinic in New York City. He went from treating patients to being unable to handle his own sudden disabilities.
“Overwhelmed by brain fog and the sense of loss over his career, he frequently sobbed on the phone as he described his struggles in an interview, including the loss of his employer-sponsored insurance,” the newspaper account said.
Buccellato has had brain bleeds and a tumor, and he often repeats himself.
Every now and then we get reminders that the pandemic is not over. This week, for instance, ABC News reported that Chicago Public Schools have had more than three times as many students test positive during the first week of school this year than last year, and nearly five times as many teachers and administrators.
Utahns seldom hear updates these days, but 536 daily cases were reported here as of Aug. 25, according to statistics compiled by worldometers.info. The real number is likely much higher, given that so many people use home tests and don’t report positive results that accompany mild symptoms.
The Brookings report recommends at least encouraging “the use of masks, air purifiers and other interventions known to reduce spread.”
That isn’t likely to happen today. Not as long as, in polite company, people lucky enough to have avoided long-term disabilities don’t take the risks seriously.