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Where Things Stand With Long Covid and Its Aftermath

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Covid-19’s devastating toll is often measured by hospitalizations and deaths, but the effects of the pandemic run far deeper and wider. Some patients raised the alarm over persistent, often debilitating symptoms within months of its emergence. Other consequences, such as increased rates of dementia and heart disease, could surface years or decades from now according to early findings — similar to how smokers are at increased risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease later in life. The impact has extended beyond the direct effects of the coronavirus as well. Stay-at-home orders and other measures aimed at slowing the contagion’s spread led to postponed medical care and socioeconomic disruption that worsened physical and mental health in hard-to-quantify ways. These all mean that even though Covid is no longer a global public health emergency, its legacy will be felt for a long time.

Most people who contracted SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes it, fully recovered after mild or even no symptoms. Many didn’t, though, triggering a crisis not witnessed since the 1918-19 Spanish influenza pandemic. An estimated 15 million additional deaths occurred globally in the first two years of the pandemic alone, including some that were the result of overburdened health systems. Covid was the third-leading cause of death in the US last year, behind heart disease and cancer. In fact, the US saw its biggest two-year decline in life expectancy in a century. For those who were critically ill and survived, an estimated three out of four developed post-intensive care syndrome — a constellation of brain, lung and other physical problems. Even for patients who weren’t hospitalized, Covid increased the risk of diabetes and autoimmune diseases, sensory problems and organ damage. Pregnant women face additional risks and so do newborns, especially boys. Persistent health issues experienced by some patients, often termed long Covid, have been described as the pandemic after the pandemic because of the number of people affected — at least 65 million based on a conservative, estimated incidence of 10% of more than 651 million documented cases worldwide.