The researchers from China-Japan Friendship Hospital looked at the records of 1,192 people who had been hospitalized at Jin Yin-tan Hospital in Wuhan, China, and were discharged between January 7 and May 29, 2020.
The researchers checked in six months, 12 months and two years after the patients were discharged and asked for their subjective assessment of symptoms. The participants were also assessed using more objective medical tests including pulmonary function tests, CT scans and six-minute walk tests.
In general, the participants had poorer health two years later. Those who had lingering Covid-19 symptoms listed pain, fatigue, problems sleeping and trouble with their mental health. Patients who had higher-level respiratory support while hospitalized had more lung problems than others in the long term.
The participants with lingering symptoms also went to the doctor more often than they did pre-pandemic. They had a harder time exercising and generally reported a poorer quality of life. Most were back at work, but it’s not clear whether they were working at the same level as before they got sick.
Study co-author Dr. Bin Cao of China-Japan Friendship Hospital hopes the research will encourage doctors to ask follow-up questions with their patients who had Covid-19, even years after their initial infection.
“There is a clear need to provide continued support to a significant proportion of people who’ve had Covid-19 and to understand how vaccines, emerging treatments, and variants affect long-term health outcomes,” Cao said in a news release.
The study has some limitations. The researchers did not compare the results to people who were hospitalized for non-Covid reasons to see if they too had lingering symptoms. They compared the hospitalized group to people in the community who never had Covid-19; that group also had health problems a year later, but that happened in only about half as many people as in the hospitalized group.
Another limitation was that the research involved a single hospital, so the results may not be universal for all hospitalized Covid-19 patients. Earlier in the pandemic, patients were typically kept in the hospital for longer than they are now, and that could have an effect on how long someone had symptoms. And because the research was done early in the pandemic, it’s unclear whether there would be similar results in people who got sick with later variants of the coronavirus or in those who had been vaccinated.
“The only thing I know that I can safely offer long Covid patients is vaccination,” said Sanghavi, who was not involved in the study. “When we compare nonvaccinated patients to vaccinated patients and see the incidence of symptoms of long Covid, vaccinated patients have less severe symptoms and less commonly have long Covid.”
“Right now, these patients sometimes seem to be an afterthought,” Sanghavi said.
“The study points out potentially how many people will need help. I don’t know if you’ve tried to get an appointment for primary care visit, but it takes potentially weeks or even months in many places. And that’s just for a simple wellness check — forget about long Covid. That’s a lot longer,” he said.
Sanghavi said more doctors will also need to be trained in how to help people with long Covid. “Our…