COVID-19 is once again on the rise in Georgia with most counties experiencing high rates of the easily transmissible BA.5 variant. Now, at least one study suggests reinfections of the virus are making it more likely to experience long-term symptoms. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports.


A man holds his 8-month-old daughter while on oxygen

Freddy Fernandez holds his eight-month-old daughter Mariana Friday, June 10, 2022, at their home in Carthage, Mo. After contracting COVID-19 in August 2021, Fernandez spent months hooked up to a respirator and an ECMO machine before coming home in February 2022 to begin his long recovery from the disease.

Credit: (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Hannah Davis contracted COVID-19 in March 2020; two years later, she continues to struggle with symptoms.

“I still have difficulty driving, reading and walking, and I still have not recovered,” Davis testified Tuesday in front of the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Davis, co-founder of the Patient led Research Collaborative, said she is one of about 20% of people experiencing Long COVID, which she described as a complex biomedical condition spanning multiple organ systems that can happen weeks or months after the onset of COVID symptoms.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. James Clyburn, defined long COVID as experiencing symptoms beyond the time of one’s initial coronavirus infection.

“For a portion of these Americans, the symptoms have been severe, including chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, shortness of breath, and cognitive impairment,” Clyburn said in his opening statement.

Some people’s symptoms have lasted since 2020 and show no signs of improving.

Though every demographic is affected, Davis said long COVID is more likely to occur in younger adults.

Dr. Winston Price, who is a former chief of staff at Memorial Hospital and Manor in Bainbridge, Georgia, agreed.

Many adolescents and young adults who are complaining of ongoing symptoms like brain fog and fatigue simply cannot do as much as they used to before COVID, he said.

“And some of the individuals who have had COVID more than once have this nagging cough that they've been complaining about,” Price said.

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One thing that all long COVID patients seem to have in common is inflammation or a high inflammatory state in which the body continues to be under a lot of stress, Dr. Heval Kelli, a cardiologist with Georgia Northside Hospital Cardiovascular Institute, said in September 2020.

While Kelli said inflammation is common after a severe infection of any kind, inflammation tends to cause damage to various parts of the body, and one of the areas that sees a lot of damage in COVID patients, in addition to the lung, is the heart, Kelli said.

As of July 2022, an estimated 1 million Americans, including Davis, left the workforce due to long COVID, and 76% of those with long COVID had relatively mild cases of the disease.

“Many did not have respiratory symptoms or low oxygen levels,” Davis said. “Many people assume long COVID is a continuation of COVID's acute symptoms, when it is a new onset of multi-systemic symptoms.”

Communities of color, women, socioeconomically disadvantaged patients, and people without appropriate work accommodations, such as those who must continue household or caretaking labor, are at increased risk.

MORE: 1 in 5 Georgians quit jobs to be caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's why.

Katie Bach, an expert in job quality and low-wage work who has been writing about the labor market impact of long COVID as a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said experts have much to learn about long COVID, despite being two and a half years into the pandemic.

“We still know far too little about why people stay sick, how long they stay sick, or what the impact is on their lives,” Bach said. “Yet we are gaining an understanding, albeit incomplete, of the economic impact of long COVID.”

“While we don't yet know definitively the long COVID risk of repeat infections, a recent study found that every repeated infection does increase the odds of long-term health consequences of COVID-19,” Bach said.

Last month, the Census Bureau's Household Pulse survey added four questions on long COVID prevalence, finding about 8.1% of working age Americans currently have long COVID.

That's about 16.4 million people, Bach estimated.

“And I want to note that a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis study corroborates this figure using longitudinal survey data,” she added.

Of course, not everyone with long COVID will leave work or reduce their hours. Mild symptoms, employer accommodations or sheer financial need can keep people employed, but, in many cases, long COVID does impact work.

“Using a very conservative estimate at the absolute lower end of that range gives us about 4 million full-time equivalent workers out of work due to long COVID,” Bach said. “And to give a sense of the sheer magnitude of that number, that is about 2.4% of the U.S.”

Unfortunately, Bach said, this number appears likely to increase.

“While we don't yet know definitively the long COVID risk of repeat infections, a recent study found that every repeated infection does increase the odds of long-term health consequences of COVID-19,” Bach said.

With variants increasingly changing and becoming more transmissible, people who remain unvaccinated — even if they already had COVID — are at risk.

The solutions include offering better treatment of long COVID, paid sick leave and access to Social Security disability benefits, Bach said.

“Currently, about 30 million private sector workers do not have any form of paid sick leave,” she said. “That means they are more likely to go to work sick and spread COVID-19, which leads to more reinfections and more (cases of) long COVID.”

President Joe Biden directed the Department of Health and Human Services to issue the first-ever interagency National Research Action Plan on Long COVID by this August, which will include strategies to help measure and characterize long COVID in both children and adults, foster development of new treatments, and improve data-sharing between agencies, academia, and industry researchers, Clyburn said.

Additionally, HHS, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, has also issued guidance specifying that long COVID qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which, Clyburn said, “gives workers the protection they need so they do not have to choose between a paycheck and their health.”