New research shows 2 million people may have had long COVID
Findings from the REACT-2 studies show over a third of people who had coronavirus reported symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.
The study is based on self-reported data from 508,707 adults aged 18 and above who took part in REACT-2 rounds three to five carried out between September 2020 and February 2021.
Around a fifth of those surveyed reported having had a COVID-19 symptom previously, with over a third reporting persistent symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks. Around a tenth of those with symptoms said they lasted at least 12 weeks and were severe.
The findings suggest prevalence of persistent symptoms, or long COVID, increases with age, with a 3.5% increase in likelihood in each decade of life. It shows long COVID is higher among women, people who are overweight or obese, who smoke, live in deprived areas, or had been admitted to hospital. Persistent COVID-19 symptoms were lower in people of Asian ethnicity.
Former Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock said: “Long COVID can have a lasting and debilitating impact on the lives of those affected. Studies like this help us to rapidly build our understanding of the impact of the condition and we are using these findings and other new research to develop support and treatments.
“We are learning more about long COVID all the time and have made £50 million of research funding available to support innovative projects, with clinics established across the country to help improve the treatment available.”
COVID-19 is still a relatively new disease and to better understand its long-term effects the government is providing scientists with £50 million of research funding through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to help ensure the best treatments are available.
To help people suffering the debilitating long-term effects of this virus, the NHS has opened over 80 long COVID assessment services across England and last week the NHS published a £100 million plan to expand support, including £30 million to help GPs improve diagnosis and care for patients with long COVID.
Professor Paul Elliott, Director of the REACT programme at Imperial, said: “Our findings do paint a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of COVID-19, which need to be accounted for in policy and planning. Long COVID is still poorly understood but we hope through our research that we can contribute to better identification and management of this condition, which our data and others’ suggest may ultimately affect millions of people in the UK alone.”
People with persistent symptoms at 12 weeks fell into two broad groups. In the first the most common symptom was tiredness and muscle aches. In the second, the most common symptoms were shortness of breath affecting normal activities, tightness in chest, and chest pain, with more people reporting that they had severe symptoms.
The study was based on self-reported data and because many of the symptoms are common and not specific to COVID-19 it may overestimate the prevalence of persistent symptoms following COVID-19.
Earlier this year, Heather Beach from the Healthy Work Company spoke to Dr Judith Grant, Director of Health & Wellbeing at Mace, about her experiences with long COVID. Judith has has been diarising her struggles with long-COVID on LinkedIn.
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has published a guide for recovering workers and is designed to help those in a job, those looking for work and starting a new job.
It covers keeping in touch with an employer, managing a phased return and the support offered by occupational health services.
For many people, returning to work is an important part of the recovery process, even if means reduced hours and changes to work patterns and duties as you get back on your feet.
‘Long COVID’ is a term that is used if after four weeks your symptoms continue and prevent you from doing normal activities. Research studies estimate that one in five people has symptoms after five weeks, and 1 in 10 has symptoms for 12 weeks or longer after acute COVID-19.
The guidance is set out under the following headings:
- During your illness.
- Returning to work.
- Examples of adjustments to work duties.
- How occupational health services can help.
- Employers’ overall responsibilities.
Guidance has also been published, which points out the importance of managers in helping employees to return to work after acute COVID-19 or long COVID. The guide sets out the steps that managers should take to give their workers the best chance of getting back to work and staying in work.
It covers making contact with the employee, arranging a phased return and discussing adjustments to the worker’s duties and schedules to enable them to cope. The guide also outlines the support that is available for managers from occupational health services and human resources.
Workers will require different levels of support depending on their role and any ongoing symptoms, so listening to their needs and checking in regularly are key it says.
While there is still lots to learn about the impact of COVID-19, it is known that:
- One in five people has symptoms after four weeks, and 1 in 10 has symptoms for 12 weeks or longer. For some, symptoms may last many months.
- Symptoms can be unpredictable and fluctuate over time.
- Common symptoms include extreme fatigue, breathlessness, muscle and joint pain, chest pain and mental health problems.
- Most workers with ongoing symptoms will need accommodations to be made in the workplace, but some may not.
- The unpredictable and fluctuating nature of long COVID means that some workers may need to return to work gradually, over a long period of time — building up their work capacity.
Managers are often the first point of contact. The guide stresses that a manager must support the returning worker, listen to their concerns and act where possible.
The guidance sets out the following key steps when supporting a returning worker:
- Step 1: stay in touch while the worker is absent from work.
- Step 2: prepare for the worker’s return.
- Step 3: have a return-to-work conversation.
- Step 4: provide support during the early days after return to work.
- Step 5: provide ongoing support and review regularly.
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