With the huge surge of COVID’s Omicron variant, Australia has gone from a nation that in many ways avoided the worst of the pandemic to a country with incredible rates of infection.
Case number graphs, rolled out by the media, now just look like one tall, ever-growing mountain, constantly trending upwards. And while there has been plenty of discussion around the severity of this new variant, the fact that so many Australians have now contracted the virus has also alerted the population to some of the long-term and chronic consequences that have been reported internationally, under the ominous title of “Long COVID.”
Defined as a set of prolonged symptoms like extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain and heart palpitations, Long COVID also stretches to broader and more unusual symptoms that have reportedly been emerging in patients in less predictable ways – including rashes, numbness in the arms and legs and sweating.
The first few instances of the condition were reported during 2020, following initial infections in places like the U.S. and China. Since then, countless people have reported having contracted, ongoing symptoms.
Though Australia-specific projections are still in their infancy, Associate Professor of Health System Financing at Victoria’s Deakin University, Martin Hensher, told VICE that based on UK findings it is likely that anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of people will experience ongoing symptoms up to four to five weeks after initial infection.
“That was down to about 3 to 4 percent at three months,” said Hensher, whose research focuses on the impact of Long COVID on Australia as the nation opens up. “And then after a year you’re looking at about 2 percent of those people with Long COVID symptoms.”
A younger cohort of Australians, thought to be in the prime of their physical health, are also beginning to report the persistence of COVID symptoms several weeks or even months after contracting the virus.
Sydney-based brand strategist Danielle Steele, who contracted COVID four weeks ago, told VICE that her symptoms have robbed her of the ability to concentrate, causing faults in her memory and a pressing guilt that, though she’s healthy enough to work, she’s underperforming due to fatigue.
“I'm still just feeling as sick as I was when I was testing positive,” she told VICE. “It's fatigue and exhaustion; a sore throat is still there; headaches and breathlessness. Just all of it.”
Though Steele isolated for the required amount of days, she still worries that she’s infectious.
“I'm playing by the rules, and I'm doing everything right according to the law, but it's really hard to know if I’m still being safe.”
For other young Australians who are particularly vulnerable due to their immunocompromised status, like Melbourne-based stylist Katherine Rose, the possibility of experiencing Long COVID presents tangible worries for future health.
“I already have chronic fatigue syndrome and I've gotten to a point where it's really manageable. I’m just worried that if I get COVID I’ll get to a point where I can’t live properly again,” she told VICE.
“It could be similar to my second vaccine dose, where I was sick for a month and couldn’t do anything. It just really affected me.”
The persistence of physical symptoms is not the only aspect of Long COVID young people are worried about. Tynique Dimcevska, a content officer for La Trobe University, says it’s also a source of social isolation and stigma.
“It makes me feel uncomfortable having to cough in public. People get scared instantly,” she explained.
“I don't worry about being contagious, but I've had people not hang out with me because they know I've had COVID – and these are my best friends. It’s really isolating.”
Though Dimcevska contracted the virus two weeks ago, she still suffers from a cough and a lack of smell. Her ability to taste has only just returned.
“It's bad enough that you have to isolate once you have it, but now there’s the fear of people who have had COVID, and with Long COVID there is ongoing social isolation,” she said. “It's more than just physical; it's also social well being.”
Though the actual number of people experiencing Long COVID is likely to increase due to this year’s Omicron spike, proven treatments for symptoms are still unknown.
However, a recent study by the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute – the first to examine the impact of Long COVID on the immune system through analysis in a laboratory setting – has discovered a set of proteins in the immune system that may help tailor treatment for those experiencing prolonged symptoms.
“Our findings may validate some of the symptoms that people with Long COVID experience,” said Senior Research Associate and co-lead Author on the paper, Dr Chansavath Phetsouphanh.
“We can use some of our knowledge of what’s been measured in acute COVID and other post-viral fatigue syndromes to narrow the investigation down a little bit, but because Long COVID is still a new syndrome, we have to take a broad examination of the evidence and look almost everywhere.”
Analysing 29 different proteins in the body through blood samples, the study uncovered the cells suspected to trigger COVID-19.
“Simply put, when we look carefully at the immune system in people who have had COVID-19 infection, and particularly at those with Long COVID, it looks different to what we would expect in healthy individuals,” said Professor Gail Matthews, Program Head of Vaccine and Therapeutic Research at the Kirby Institute.
“This tells us that there might be something quite unique in the pathophysiology of this disease.”
With COVID still tearing through the nation, the full scope of long-term, chronic illness – both in numbers and treatment – is yet to be seen.
This being said, the United Kingdom stands as an example of successful data tracking when it comes to Long COVID. And though still in its experimental testing phase, it gives a look into approximate numbers of those living with the disease.
“Unless we do that kind of a survey, we're just not going to know how many people there are,” said Hensher. “So I think it's really urgent that we set up one big national survey to get a sense of how people are recovering.”
“In doing this we can reduce the impact it has on the healthcare system – which has never been terribly good at caring for people with chronic conditions.”
Read more from VICE Australia.