TThe United States has recently taken a sharp turn towards “living with” instead of trying to avoid COVID-19. Masks are no longer recommended indoors for Americans in most parts of the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and many mask and vaccine requirements have been lifted even in the most COVID-cautious parts of the country. IN a vote conducted in March by Axios-Ipsos, 66% of Americans said they thought COVID-19 posed little or no risk.
It’s hard to blame people for relaxing a little. For most vaccinated and boosted people, it is overwhelmingly unlikely that a case of COVID-19 will result in serious illness. But some experts say that the risk of Lang COVID– the name of symptoms that last months or even more than a year after a case of COVID-19 – is real enough that it should worry both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Long COVID is both potentially disabling and relatively rare, making the risk difficult to quantify. It is also too early to say whether Omicron infections will lead to more or fewer Long COVID cases than previous variants, says Dr. Michael Lin, Specialist in Infectious Diseases at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“The short answer is, at the moment, we do not know enough” to give concrete advice on how long COVID should fit into risk calculations, says Lin.
Who is most likely to get long COVID?
There is no single profile of a long COVID patient. An estimated 10% to 30% of people who receive COVID-19 develop some degree of persistent symptoms, although vaccination significantly reduces a person’s odds. The condition affects people old and young after mild and severe COVID-19 cases. Women seem to constitute one disproportionate percentage of patients, but all genders are vulnerable. Many long-distance carriers, as people with long covid are sometimes called, were active and healthy before they became ill, while others had pre-existing conditions.
No one knows exactly what makes some people get it. Recent studies has investigated potential risk factors – from diagnoses of asthma and type 2 diabetes to peculiarities of the immune system – but that research is still in progress.
How to reduce the risk of prolonged COVID
Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people have developed Long COVID. But getting vaccinated is one of the best known ways to reduce your risk – except you will never be infected at all, of course.
A recent study from researchers at the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that adults who became infected after two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were about 40% less likely to report symptoms of Long COVID later than unvaccinated people who became infected . In the study, about 9.5% of the vaccinated and 15% of the unvaccinated persons reported symptoms 12 weeks after infection. Other studies– most of them small – have reached similar estimates.
“You are much less likely to get Long COVID if you are fully vaccinated,” says Dr. Wes Ely, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine who researches Long COVID, “but the risk does not go to zero by any means.”
Linda Loxley, a 55-year-old long-distance ranger living in Rhode Island, caught COVID-19 in March 2021, the same week she received her second vaccine dose. After avoiding the virus throughout 2020 – despite working at a nursing home where she was likely to be exposed – and getting her first dose of vaccine, “I thought I was safe,” Loxley says.
Instead, COVID-19 left her with unbearable headaches, debilitating fatigue, nerve pain, and cognitive dysfunction. Her symptoms became severe enough that she had to leave her job, and after a year of illness, she has yet to find a treatment that makes a significant difference.
Loxley says the experience of long-distance carriers should be a reminder that COVID-19 is a serious threat. “This is true,” she says. “We caught this virus and we can not get rid of it.”
How much should I worry about Long COVID?
When someone can get long-term COVID and vaccination is a good – but not flawless – way to reduce the risk, it is virtually impossible for anyone to accurately calculate their odds of developing the condition.
People like security, says Robyn Wilson, a professor of risk analysis and decision-making science at Ohio State University. “We want [the chances of something to be] zero or 100. Everything in between, often our perceptions or calculations will be biased ”depending on personal risk tolerance, circumstances or experience with the threat in question, she says. For example, a person whose spouse suffers from prolonged COVID-19 may overestimate the likelihood of getting it, while a person who does not know anyone with the condition may overestimate it.
Even experts disagree on how long COVID should be recognized in a person risk calculation.
“It’s still reasonable for the most part to focus on the acute symptoms and hospitalization and death as being the primary motivators for avoiding COVID,” says Lin, because so little is known about Long COVID.
But Ely says people should not forget Long COVID either. “Anyone who is healthy and wants to stay healthy and live a normal lifestyle will need to be aware” that Long COVID is an option and act accordingly, such as. wearing an N95, KN95 or other protective mask in public indoor settings, he says.
With so much left to learn, Wilson says each person must decide how risks like Long COVID will affect their behavior. One person may decide that the benefits of going back to “normal” make any related risks worthwhile, while another might decide that peace of mind makes continued caution worthwhile. Nor is it inherently wrong or right, as long as people do not deliberately endanger others or make those around them unpleasant, Wilson says.
When accurate risk calculations are not possible, “you have to rely on mental shortcuts” that allow you to make difficult choices, she says. Throughout the pandemic, Wilson has postponed to CDC Guide every time she has to make a decision – which these days means she feels pretty confident about easing the precautions.
“I still encourage people to look to the experts for what is appropriate,” she says. “But if on a personal level you are not comfortable with that uncertainty … do what you have to do.”
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