Medics With 'Long COVID' Call for Clinical Recognition

Rachel Pugh

July 21, 2020

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.

'Weird Symptoms'

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'.

Stimulating Recovery

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."

General Practice

GPs have been at the forefront of management of the long-standing consequences of COVID-19. In its recent report General practice in the post-COVID world, the Royal College of General Practioners highlights the need for urgent government planning and funding to prepare general practice services for facilitating the recovery of local communities.

The report calls on the four Governments of the UK each to produce a comprehensive plan to support GPs in managing the longer-term effects of COVID-19 in the community, including costed proposals for additional funding for general practice; workforce solutions; reductions in regulatory burdens and 'red tape'; a systematic approach for identifying patients most likely to need primary care support, and proposals for how health inequalities will be minimised to ensure all patients have access to the necessary post-COVID-19 care.

RCGP Chair Professor Martin Marshall said: "COVID-19 will leave a lingering and difficult legacy and it is GPs working with patients in their communities who will be picking up the pieces."

One issue is the lack of a reliable estimate of the prevalence of post viral symptoms for other viruses, let alone for COVID-19. Even a 1% chance of long-term problems amongst survivors would suggest 2500 with a need for extra support, but experience with post-viral syndrome generally suggests the prevalence may be more like 3%.

The BMA has been carrying out tracker surveys of its own members at 2-week intervals since March. The most recent, involving more than 5000 doctors, indicated that around 30% of doctors who believed they'd had COVID-19 were still experiencing physical symptoms they thought were caused by the virus, 21% had taken sick leave, and a further 9% had taken annual leave to deal with ongoing symptoms.

Dr David Strain, chair of the BMA medical academic staff committee and clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, has a particular interest in the after-effects of COVID-19. He said it was becoming evident that the virus was leaving a lasting legacy with a significant number of people, even younger ones.

He told Medscape News UK: "Once COVID-19 enters the nervous system, the lasting symptoms on people can range from a mild loss of sense of smell or taste, to more severe symptoms such as difficulties in concentration. A small number have also been left with chronic fatigue syndrome, which is poorly understood, and can be difficult to treat. This does not appear to be dependent on the initial severity of COVID-19 symptoms.

"Currently, it is impossible to predict the prevalence of longer-lasting effects.  A full assessment of COVID-19's impact will only be possible once people return to work on a regular basis and the effect on their physical health becomes evident. Of the doctors in the BMA survey who had experienced COVID-19, 15% took sick leave beyond their acute illness, and another 6% used annual leave allowance to extend their recovery time.

"Clearly, more research will be needed into the long-term consequences of COVID-19 and the future treatments needed to deal with them."

Further Research

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) has called for applications for research to enhance understanding and management of the health and social care consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic beyond the acute phase, with a particular focus on 'health outcomes, public health, social care and health service delivery and to mitigate the impact of subsequent phases and aftermath'.

The authors of The BMJ article stress the wide-ranging nature of  'long COVID' symptoms and warn of the dangers of treating them for research purposes under the banner of chronic fatigue. They say: "These wide-ranging, unusual, and potentially very serious symptoms can be anxiety-provoking, particularly secondary to a virus that has only been known to the world for 8 months and which we have barely begun to understand. However, it is dismissive solely to attribute such symptoms to anxiety in the thousands of patients like ourselves who have attended hospital or general practice with chronic COVID-19."

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