Long COVID: The Silent Pandemic

HMS Center for Primary Care provides latest clinical updates in online course

illustration of a large SARS-CoV-2 spike protein tethered to a person trying to walk away
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This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of COVID-19.

Two days after the onset of a cough and runny nose, a patient’s symptoms progressed to body aches, fatigue, cough, and shortness of breath. A rapid antigen COVID test came up positive; his doctor advised rest, hydration, and avoiding close contact with others. Despite following these recommendations, three weeks later, he still had persistent fatigue and a lingering cough that kept him up at night.

At the patient’s next visit, five weeks after his initial diagnosis, his primary care provider suggested that he may have long COVID.

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Evolving data on long COVID

Currently, published medical literature suggests that long COVID occurs in up to 80 percent of patients following an infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that nearly one in five American adults who have had COVID-19 now have long COVID. A conservative estimate from the Brookings Institution suggests that long COVID may be keeping as many as 4 million Americans out of work.

Long COVID, considered a silent pandemic by many, is running parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic. Primary care offices across the United States are seeing patients with possible long COVID, who may experience long COVID symptoms anywhere from weeks to years after their original infection.