Two months after infection, COVID-19 symptoms persist

Two months after infection, COVID-19 symptoms persist

Longterm problems —

Almost 90 percent still have at least one symptom long after the virus has gone.

John Timmer

Two months after infection, COVID-19 symptoms persist

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated in many countries, an ever-growing group of people is being shifted from the “infected” to the “recovered” category. But are they truly recovered? A lot of anecdotal reports have indicated that many of those with severe infections are experiencing a difficult recovery, with lingering symptoms, some of which remain debilitating. Now, there’s a small study out of Italy in which a group of infected people was tracked for an average of 60 days after their infection was discovered. And the study confirms that symptoms remain long after there’s no detectable virus.

The study was incredibly simple in design. Patients being treated in Rome for COVID-19 were asked to participate in a tracking study. Overall, 143 patients agreed and were enrolled in the study following a negative test for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The group ranged from 19 to 85 years old, with an average age of 57. Overall, they had spent an average of 13 days in the hospital while infected, and about 20 percent had needed assistance with breathing.

Roughly 60 days later, the researchers followed up with an assessment of these patients. Two months after there was no detectable virus, only 13 percent of the study group was free of any COVID-19 symptoms. By contrast, a bit over half still had at least three symptoms typical of the disease.

The most common symptom was fatigue, followed by difficulty breathing, joint pain, and chest pain. Over 10 percent were still coughing, and similar numbers hadn’t seen their sense of smell return. A large range of other symptoms were also present.

And that’s about all the data the researchers have. The study has a number of potential issues. The study population is smaller than anyone would like, and the participants were asked to recall the symptoms they had while hospitalized, instead of having their symptoms pulled from their medical records. Plus, some of the COVID-19 symptoms surveyed for—such as headaches—are pretty generic and could have a variety of causes.

Still, it’s good to start to get some quantitative data on what has largely been limited to anecdotal reports until now. And the data does provide information that could be valuable for officials coordinating the response to the pandemic, as it indicates that the strains on the medical system won’t necessarily drop if we can get the death rate down. And, hopefully, it will provide an additional reason for people to take the threat from COVID-19 seriously. This is a population that, on average, is substantially lower than the high-risk population, and (obviously) all of them have survived the disease, yet they continue to have difficulty two months after the virus was cleared.

JAMA, 2020. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2020.12603  (About DOIs).

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