Experts warn 200,000 New Zealanders could be affected by Long COVID-19 from first Omicron wave

Experts are warning as many as 200,000 New Zealanders could be affected by Long COVID-19 - just from the first wave of Omicron.

It's been three months since case numbers really started ramping up and some people still haven't recovered.

Ryan Johnstone is a 32-year-old, career-driven, 5km run-a-day kind of guy. He's fully vaccinated but 11 weeks from getting COVID-19, he's still struggling with debilitating symptoms.

"It's insomnia, it's heart issues, it's neurological issues with my thinking and my memory," he told Newshub.

He tried to go back to work but it's forced him to ask for a career break.

"I work a fairly demanding job where… I normally take one to no sick days a year and I've now been forced to be off for two months," he said. "I don't know how much longer I'm going to need -  it does take a toll."

But it's not until he's had symptoms for 12 weeks that he can be diagnosed as having Long COVID and there's no financial support.

"My wife's pregnant at the moment and it's quite a stress at the moment when I'm not well," he said.

He feels alone but he's far from it.

"The rate of Long COVID will probably be at the lower end... say 10 percent of the estimated 2 million people that have had COVID in this country, that's 200,000 people who are likely to be affected to some degree by Long COVID," said Dr Rob Griffiths, the lead convenor of a symposium on Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome (PACS).

But that 200,000 only accounts for the current number of infections. 

As infections go up, so will Long COVID cases. And reinfections can give you Long COVID even if you were OK the first time.

Three months on from the surge in Omicron cases and experts are expecting a flood of Long COVID cases.

"We're expecting to see a lot of people now who know they have not recovered from their acute infection and are needing that validation that they've got Long COVID now," University of Auckland Long COVID Researcher Dr Anna Brooks said.

Dr Brooks is trying to develop a test to identify those with Long COVID and she said the answer is in the blood.

But recovery could take time.

"We don't know whether some people may take another three months to recover, a year, two years, or unfortunately may never return to their normal health," she said.

Dr Griffiths, from the University of Otago's Wellington campus, is organising a Long COVID symposium next week and said Government agencies should urgently develop plans to provide ongoing support "so that everybody in New Zealand can get adequate access if they develop Long COVID".

Johnstone wants Government guidance for employers and support for employees.

"It's a lottery as to how your immune system will react to the virus, you just don't know," he said.

"There needs to be some sort of safety net there for them because at the moment they're on their own."

The Government is working on a framework but those already suffering need help now.