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‘Long COVID’ hits mental health and ability to work, new data suggests

July 21, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

The phenomenon of “long COVID,” lingering symptoms that can last for months after infection, is still far from being well understood, but data is starting to emerge that can give a clearer picture of COVID’s long-term effects. And one of the most useful sources of that data, the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, just released early findings that could have serious implications for the policies chosen by governments and businesses.

Having already released data on long COVID’s physical effects earlier this month—the most common are fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and difficulty concentrating—the ONS said Wednesday that 30% of COVID-19 long-haulers reported experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of depression. That’s nearly twice the rate for those who had not been infected.

The same proportion said the condition had negatively affected their work, and 39% said it had reduced their ability to exercise.

The data comes from polling, conducted between April and June, that garnered responses from nearly 40,000 people aged 16 or older; the symptoms were self-reported rather than clinically diagnosed. Just over 16% of the total said they had had COVID, and nearly two in five of those people said they had definitely or possibly experienced long COVID.

Overall, 57% of the self-identified long-COVID sufferers said the experience had negatively affected their general well-being. They were more likely to say they had become anxious, less satisfied with life, less fulfilled, and less happy. And 22% (versus 13% for those who had not had COVID-19) said their household finances had been affected.

“Although no single definition of long COVID exists it is likely it affects people in different ways,” said Tim Vizard, the ONS’s principal research officer, in a statement. “Today’s research highlights the potential for people’s mental health, well-being, or work to be impacted by long COVID. We’ve found more people who may have had long COVID report negative impacts.”

However, Vizard warned, “more work is needed to disentangle the effects of long COVID from a variety of factors such as age, sex, or disability.”

The ONS’s survey results come days after England removed nearly all COVID restrictions, despite the rapid spread of the coronavirus’s Delta variant.

Boris Johnson’s administration did this largely because most British adults are now vaccinated, so the link between infections and hospitalizations and deaths has been “severed,” as Johnson put it.

So far, it is true that the U.K.’s third wave of infections has not been matched by a huge rise in hospitalizations and deaths—though the wave is only expected to peak next month, so it’s too early to confirm that the strategy has paid off on the basis of that metric.

However, even if relatively few of the 46,558 people whose infections were reported Tuesday end up in the hospital, the ONS’s data—early-stage as it is—suggests one or two thousand could be left with longer-lasting symptoms that could affect their general well-being or their ability to do their jobs.

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