Coronavirus: Experts say it's time to take long COVID seriously, more support needed for sufferers

"Health professionals are woefully uninformed, and patients are being left uncared for."
"Health professionals are woefully uninformed, and patients are being left uncared for." Photo credit: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

While it's too early to know if Omicron will lead to many long Covid cases limited support is available for those who develop the debilitating condition, experts says.

Dr Stephen Ritchie, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Auckland, said he expected that because the majority of people affected by the Omicron variant have mild disease the risk of long Covid could be lower.

"The exceptionally high vaccination rate in New Zealand provides protection against severe disease and also against long Covid. However, because so many New Zealanders have and will become unwell with Omicron, a large number of people will still develop long Covid symptoms."

Dr Mona Jeffreys, a senior research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington, is among those concerned that sufferers don't get much support.

"Health professionals are woefully uninformed, and patients are being left uncared for."

She has been involved in a study asking patients what would have helped with their recovery and is also assisting with the setting up of a Long Covid Collective, to bring together people with the condition, researchers and clinicians.

Dr Anna Brooks, a senior lecturer at Auckland University, is part of a support group that shares information via Facebook.

She said access to medical care has been challenging, with those having Long Covid experiencing a lack of understanding of the condition or the knowledge to assist.

"Notwithstanding, medical management guidelines are still emerging, and we hope that in due course dedicated Long Covid services will be implemented.

"New Zealand also urgently needs a national survey (similar to the UK Office for National Statistics database) to allow self-monitoring of wellbeing, including post-acute symptoms."

The UK is the only country that is trying to track the incidence of Long Covid, Dr Brooks said.

The experts say the condition must be taken seriously.

"While you are ill, rest. If you do have symptoms of Long Covid [ongoing, or newly developing symptoms], please seek help," Dr Jeffreys said.

"There is information available from Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā and the National Institute for Health Innovation.

"Most importantly, if you have fatigue, muscle weakness, etc, do not 'push through'. Do not think that you can exercise your way out of this. Do not believe that this is all in your mind. It is real, and with time and care, your symptoms can improve."

Professor Harvey White, a cardiologist and director of the Green Lane Cardiovascular Research Unit, also warned that the development of long Covid should not be trivialised.

"You could have heart attacks or strokes in the future, or brain fog affecting your memory and thinking, or fatigue affecting your ability to work or take part in recreation."

Dr Bronwyn Lennox Thompson, a senior lecturer at the University of Otago, believes the lack of support will once again show up the health divide in this country.

"People in Aotearoa New Zealand with long Covid are likely to have great difficulty accessing rehabilitation services, particularly to support them to resume work, manage daily life occupations such as parenting, and return to their usual leisure activities.

"Currently rehabilitation services such as occupational therapy, physiotherapy and social work are not funded consistently across the country in primary health care.

"Given the government has placed most Covid management into the hands of primary care general practitioners, this means that most people with long Covid will struggle to obtain the rehabilitation they need."

While some can afford to pay for such services, it will be hard for those people "who are financially disadvantaged", she said.

This article was made possible by accessing material gathered by the Science Media Centre.