It’s Not Over: As Delta Variant Preys on the Unvaccinated, Long COVID Settles In

Over 2 million people in England may be suffering from long COVID. That’s almost 4% of England’s population; 4% of the U.S. population would be over 13 million people.

It’s still not over. That’s a painful fact to write after what COVID-19 put the United States and the rest of the world through. However, three variables could keep COVID-19 in our lives even as we so long to get on with our lives sans SARS-CoV-2. The combination that most worries officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the moment mixes the deadly Delta variant with vaccine hesitancy. That combination keeps Missouri on the ropes, as state health care providers battle an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases, the Associated Press (AP) reports. Health officials in the state say that perhaps the one good thing that might come out of what they’re going through—as hospitals there fill with COVID-19 patients—will be to show the rest of the U.S. population the crucial importance of vaccination.

“We will be the canary,” Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield, tells the AP. Missouri’s case count has soared by 83.6% since June 1, according to the Mayo Clinic. Over 53% of Americans have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC. In southern and northern counties in Missouri, the vaccination rates are below 40% and in one county, the rate’s about 13%.

An AP analysis of CDC data shows that breakthrough infections—that is infections of fully vaccinated people—“accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 0.1%. And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%, or five deaths per day on average.”

Rochelle Walensky, MD, the head of the CDC, starkly laid out just how much of a threat the Delta variant poses in a press conference at the White House on Tuesday. In essence, Walensky said that we need to stop the Delta variant now through vaccination, or risk facing something worse. While the vaccines work against the Delta variant, the variant “represents a set of mutations that could lead to future mutations that evade our vaccine. And that’s why it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated now, to stop the chain of infection, the chain of mutations that could lead to a more dangerous variant.”

Then there’s the risk posed by long COVID.

Kevin Kavanagh, MD, a member of Infection Control Today®’s Editorial Advisory Board, told ICT® in a Q&A in January that “one of the things that’s really frustrated me with this epidemic and pandemic is that people are totally focused on dying…. But in actuality, the disabilities are much, much more concerning because that is even affecting the young people.”

Other health care experts have begun to echo Kavanagh’s concerns.

At Tuesday’s White House press conference, Walensky said that “one of the unfortunate outcomes from COVID-19 is something known as ‘post-COVID conditions’ or ‘long COVID’. Post-COVID conditions are an umbrella term for the wide range of physical and mental health problems that occur four or more weeks after being infected with COVID-19. Current research suggests that up to 20% of people are reporting post-COVID condition symptoms, but additional research is needed and is ongoing with funding from NIH [National Institutes of Health] and CDC.”

Walensky stressed that asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 might not be spared the effects of long COVID. “Symptoms may vary and may include fatigue, brain fog, headache, loss of smell or taste, dizziness on standing, heart palpitations, chest pain, difficulty breathing, cough, joint or muscle pain, depression and anxiety and insomnia. These symptoms can persist for weeks or months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, or appear weeks after infection. For some people, they can be severely debilitating.”

A survey released yesterday by Imperial College London states that over 2 million people in England may be suffering from long COVID. That’s almost 4% of England’s population; 4% of the U.S. population would be over 13 million people.

Paul Elliott, PhD, an Imperial College epidemiologist who led the study, said in a statement: “Our findings do paint a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of COVID-19, which need to be accounted for in policy and planning. Long COVID is still poorly understood but we hope through our research that we can contribute to better identification and management of this condition, which our data and others’ suggest may ultimately affect millions of people in the UK alone.”