Efforts to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control while still returning to some sort of normal life are delicately balanced – and new research suggests more attention needs to be paid to the long-term effects of the virus for those patients who required placement in intensive care units (ICUs).
An analysis of 246 patients admitted to intensive care in the Netherlands while having COVID-19, with an average age of 61, showed that nearly three-quarters (74.3 percent of them) were still experiencing physical problems 12 months after their hospital visit.
It's another reminder of the risk of long COVID – having significant symptoms caused by the coronavirus long after the initial disease has passed. According to earlier research, there are more than 200 symptoms associated with the condition, and it shows the importance of long-term monitoring of the effects of COVID-19.
"This study shows what an incredible impact an ICU admission has on the lives of former COVID-19 patients," says senior researcher Marieke Zegers, from the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
"Even after one year, half of them are tired or experience lack of the energy to fully resume their work."
Most people reported physical problems, with 38.9 percent of people saying they still felt weaker a year after COVID. Mental health issues were mentioned by 26.2 percent of participants, while 16.2 percent mentioned cognition problems (such as issues with memory and attention spans).
The physical problems mentioned by the study participants included pain, muscle weakness, and a shortness of breath. As for mental problems, feelings of anxiety or post-traumatic stress were reported by around one in five.
As yet not much is known about the long-term effects of getting a serious case of COVID-19 – we're 'only' two years into the pandemic – but it seems clear that for a lot of people there are ongoing issues that match up with the same sort of short-term symptoms.
"Post-ICU symptoms can be divided within the physical, mental, and cognitive domain and are associated with increased one-year mortality, higher health care costs, and lower quality of life," write the researchers in their published paper.
Scientists do have an increasing amount of information to go off of when it comes to understanding COVID-19, including patient responses to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which in severe cases affects people very much like COVID-19 does.
Long-term illness has knock-on effects beyond the primary patients as well, covering friends and family who might be caring for those who remain sick to some degree, as well as employers. The study revealed that 57.8 percent of those surveyed who had a job before getting COVID-19 were still off sick or working reduced hours a year later.
While the study has some limitations – it relies on volunteers reporting on their own condition and symptoms, rather than any clinical diagnosis – it does highlight reasons to be concerned when it comes to the way people can continue to suffer from COVID-19 long after their hospital stay is over.
"Insight into the long-term outcomes among patients with COVID-19 who received ICU treatment is important for providing adequate care and aftercare tailored to the clinical needs of these patients," write the researchers.
The research has been published in JAMA.