‘Long COVID’ cases are expected to skyrocket in England post ‘Freedom Day’, as medical professionals and sufferers warn the impacts will plague health systems for years to come.
Twenty-nine-year-old Callum O’Dwyer caught the virus at the start of the UK lockdown in March 2020.
“I was in my flat alone and my breathlessness was so bad I was just sitting in my armchair and I was gasping for air,” he told The Drum from Scotland.
“I was dropping plates that I was cleaning because I was so weak, I couldn’t really pick up my phone to message people.”
It’s been nearly 16 months since then. He believes the vaccination helped somewhat, but his chronic fatigue has never gone away — and he has not worked since.
Academics in the United Kingdom have been racing to understand in what ways — and how severely — long COVID can affect people.
Despite the UK now recording tens of thousands of cases a day, and England’s Chief Medical Officer recognising that long COVID will get worse, the country has just rolled back all legal and social restrictions including mask wearing.
One epidemiologist has warned the easing could result in an additional half-a-million cases of the virus.
Experts warn of impacts of COVID on young
There were 962,000 people who self-reported having long COVID in the United Kingdom, and more than 850,000 caught the virus at least 12 weeks prior, according to a survey from the Office of National Statistics.
Former Regional Director of public health in England Dr Gabriel Scally is particularly concerned about the impacts of COVID on children’s brains.
“That is why I’m so against, so against, the infection being allowed to run wild in the childhood population because their brains are very vulnerable,” Dr Scally told The Drum.
A study from University of Oxford and Imperial College London looked at brain scans before and after catching COVID, and found “significant effects of COVID-19 in the brain”.
This included grey matter loss in different parts of the brain, which is understood to impact information processing.
They are symptoms Callum knows well — he reports experiencing ‘brain fog’ regularly.
“It is like inheriting the brain of an old man.”
Long path to recovery from a variety of COVID symptoms
Rebecca Logan was an emergency nurse swabbing patients in Northern Ireland when she caught the virus early April last year.
Her symptoms ranged from hallucinations, losing her taste and smell, breathing issues, headaches, as well as muscle aches.
“As time went on and I tried to continue to get back my normal life, I realised that my body wasn’t letting me,” Rebecca told The Drum.
A University College London patient-led survey of 3700 long haulers across 56 countries and found 200 different symptoms that affected 10 organ systems. It took the majority of those surveyed about 35 weeks to recover.
Prior to COVID Rebecca was also a fitness instructor. Now she can barely walk.
Using a walking stick makes her arms sore, so she uses a wheelchair to go out with her children.
“Whenever I do any exertion I get out of breath, my heart rate goes up and I get pain in my back.”
Teams of researchers seek cure abroad, and closer to home
Professor Gail Matthews from UNSW’s Kirby Institute said those who spent time in hospital will likely get traditional rehabilitation in those clinics, but internationally it is not clear what is needed for those who have lingering issues because the causes are still unknown.
Professor Matthews is a lead investigator of the smaller ADAPT study in Australia that found about 20 per cent of Australian COVID patients are not back to their pre-COVID health.
“We found long COVID affects all ages,” she said.
The information they gather, in particular around immune systems, is being shared internationally to “answer the question” of what causes long COVID.
“It is really important for people to understand that you can get long COVID as well as acute COVID so being vaccinated in the first place will help prevent long COVID,” Professor Matthews said.
UNSW Infectious disease social scientist Associate Professor Holly Seale agreed. She told The Drum that making the link between ongoing issues was something that needed to be worked on in Australia.
“What does the community think about long COVID? What do they know about long COVID? Is this something that would help motivate them to get vaccinated?”
Lengthy and uncertain process facing long COVID sufferers
For those still struggling to breathe, walk and get beyond the fatigue — it’s the uncertainty that makes it worse.
“I know COVID is new and long COVID is new but no-one can tell me whether or not I’ll get better,” says Rebecca Logan.
Callum O’Dwyer agreed that long COVID could potentially have a massive impact on the healthcare system.
“I hope in the long arc of things, things just continue to improve but it’s a very slow process and it’s very nonlinear — things kind of go up and down all the time.”
The Drum airs weeknights on ABC and News Channel.