One of the scariest consequences of contracting COVID-19 is the aftermath. Long Covid, a neologism that refers to long-term side effects which appear after the virus has cleared one's body, occurs in at least 10 percent of patients who contract COVID-19. And while symptoms vary, long Covid can leave people with devastating and debilitating side effects. Internal tremors and vibrations, depression, or a lasting loss of taste and smell are all possible symptoms of long Covid, or post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection as it is formally known.
While not much is known about why some people get long Covid and others don't, a growing body of research suggests that people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 are slightly less likely to develop long-term COVID-19 symptoms. Perhaps surprisingly, the degree to which the risk of long Covid is reduced in the vaccinated is not great. That's according to a new study published in Nature Medicine, which is believed to be the largest peer-reviewed study on long Covid and breakthrough COVID-19 cases based in the United States. Their findings are particularly surprising given how much vaccines appear to protect against serious COVID-19 cases; indeed, those who are vaccinated and who have a breakthrough case of COVID typically have mild cases.
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According to the study, which analyzed the medical records of 33,940 people who experienced breakthrough infections after vaccination, there was only a 15 percent reduced risk of the vaccinated getting long Covid (compared to unvaccinated people) six months after their initial diagnosis of COVID-19. For some of the most debilitating symptoms, there was no difference in risk; these include neurologic issues, cardiometabolic disease, fatigue and respiratory issues. Patients in the study either had two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Notably, the study didn't cover the time period in which the omicron variant and its subvariants have circulated.
"People with breakthrough infections can still get long Covid, and guess what? The features of long Covid in these patients were very, very similar to the features of long Covid in unvaccinated individuals," Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the study's senior investigator and Chief of Research and Development at the VA St. Louis healthcare system, told Salon. "Some of the long Covid manifestations that we were seeing in breakthrough infections were very similar, qualitatively, [in] clinical features to the long Covid that we see in unvaccinated individuals."
"Let's say SARS-CoV-2 is here for 10 years ... Our current approach will likely leave a large number of people with chronic and potentially disabling conditions that have no treatments."
The greatest benefit of the COVID-19 vaccine in long Covid patients appeared to be in symptoms such as lung complications and a reduction in blood clotting.
The risk of long Covid in vaccinated people was slightly higher for those who were vaccinated and immunocompromised — 17 percent, compared to those who were previously healthy and vaccinated but experienced a breakthrough infection. In more positive news, the study did show that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of death, by 34 percent.
Long Covid was first identified after many patients began to report persistent symptoms early on during the pandemic, before the vaccine existed. According to the World Health Organization, long Covid is defined as having symptoms that last longer than two months and can't be explained by another diagnosis. As Salon has previously reported, some of those who got COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic are still struggling with persisting symptoms that affect their daily lives over two years later.
"I've been sick now for two years; "I don't know if I'm ever going to get better," long Covid sufferer Leigh Jerome told Salon in February. "I've tried to be grateful, to maintain perspective, and I think I do a pretty good job of that, but on the other hand management is not the same thing as being okay."
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new statistics on the condition and the toll it has had on Americans. According to the report, one in five COVID-19 survivors between the ages of 18 of 64 years have at least one condition that persists after a COVID-19 diagnosis; that statistic increases to one in four for survivors over the age of 65. Those over the age of 65 were also at a higher risk of developing neurologic conditions and mental health conditions.
Al-Aly assured Salon that, despite this study, COVID-19 vaccines still provide some protection against long Covid.
"I would say that it offers partial protection, because it's clearly definitely better than nothing," Al-Aly said. "If you say, 'Okay, what about fatigue?' You know, fatigue reduction is by 30 percent, but overall, reduction is not zero. It works, but it's not really going to be sufficient on its own as a long-term sustainable or long-term mitigation strategy."
Al-Aly hopes the takeaway from this study is that we need to think more about how to protect against long Covid.
"Let's say SARS-CoV-2 is here for 10 years," Al-Aly said in a press statement. "Our current approach will likely leave a large number of people with chronic and potentially disabling conditions that have no treatments. This will not only affect people's health, but their ability to work, life expectancy, economic productivity and societal well-being."
Al-Aly added that moving forward, there needs to be "a candid national conversation about the consequences of our current approach."
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