Long Covid: One in five Covid patients in NZ study reported symptoms, many struggled to get help

Scout Barbour-Evans has been struggling to get home help after their condition has left them barely able to stand. Video / @scoutriver

One in five people in a major Covid study in New Zealand reported Long Covid symptoms after their initial infection.

These patients told researchers that Long Covid was still poorly understood by doctors in this country and that they were struggling to get help.

With as many as 300,000 New Zealanders likely to experience Long Covid, the authors of the Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University of Wellington study were recommending that the Government establish dedicated clinics around the country and recognize the condition as a disability.

The study, published todaywas based on surveys with 990 participants who caught Covid before December 2021.

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Of that total, 22 percent reported symptoms which matched the World Health Organization definition of Long Covid – fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, muscle aches and joint pain which lasted for more than three months after infection. Some of the participants compared their symptoms to aging, saying they “felt like they now had the conditions that older people often get”.

The risk of Long Covid was higher among people with pre-existing heart disease or a high BMI.

Their burden was worsened by an apparent lack of understanding of the condition by their doctors, or in some cases, misinformed health professionals.

“About half felt the healthcare they received wasn’t adequate and reported not feeling listened to or understood,” said epidemiologist Dr. Mona Jeffreys, who co-led the study with her colleague Dr. Lynne Russell.

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Professor Warren Tate, from the University of Otago’s Department of Biochemistry, said the 22 percent Long Covid rate in the study was within the international Long Covid prevalence rates of between 10 to 50 percent. A major analysis published in the Nature Reviews journal, which took into account the impact of Omicron, made an estimate of 10 percent.

“Even so, in New Zealand with perhaps three million of us having had the virus, and now some of us two or three times with a higher risk of ongoing illness, it means [we] could have a burden of at least 300,000 people needing targeted health, social and financial services,” Professor Tate said.

He said the study’s recommendation that Long Covid be recognized as a disability was “essential” because it would streamline their access to existing social and financial services. He also supported a proposal to provide effective training on post-viral conditions at medical schools, which would mean emerging doctors would be better placed to handle Long Covid patients.

Among other recommendations by the study’s authors was the establishment of dedicated Long Covid clinics, which have been set up in the UK and some states in Australia. The specialty clinics are a one-stop shop designed to address the multiple symptoms of Long Covid and give patients access to a range of healthcare professionals including specialists, doctors, occupational therapists and psychologists.

The Ministry of Health last year provided guidelines to doctors in diagnosing Long Covid. But this had not yet translated into improved care, experts said.

“Despite this, no new clinical or support services have been provided by Te Whatu Ora, thus there is no pathway from Long Covid diagnosis to treatment and management,” said Professor Paula Lorgelly, from the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland.

The Victoria University study also provided some of the most detailed evidence so far of the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Maori, Pacific, and disabled people.

New Zealand did not learn from previous pandemics and applied a “one size fits all” Covid response which did not take into account historical inequities.

“By not taking an approach different to that which it has pursued in the past, it was inevitable that structural inequities already existing prior to Covid-19 would be propagated and magnified,” the study said.

Maori and Pacific people had more difficulty in seeing a GP or paying for medication when they had Covid, were more likely to require ongoing care, and more likely to report that their families were faring worse after having Covid.

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Disabled people reported much higher rates of depression and anxiety about Covid compared to other groups.

“The personal stories and journeys documented sadly reflect the experience of many in Aotearoa,” Professor Lorgelly said. “And we must learn from these experiences and not repeat them when we respond to future pandemics and health crises.”

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