Four employees in an office looking at the camera, smiling

This photo is courtesy of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA). 

Two years ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Since then more than 460 million people have been infected by COVID-19. Now, new evidence suggests that 10 per cent of people who survived the virus will have lingering symptoms that negatively affect their quality of life and ability to work. The increase in people with ongoing care needs due to long-term symptoms and the affects it will have on the health care system is known as the Long COVID tail.

This research suggests that millions of patients who have had COVID-19 will continue to experience fatigue, shortness of breath, pain and may develop more serious organ dysfunction such as pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lungs), cognitive impairment (difficulty with thinking and memory), myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) and kidney failure after they have recovered from the acute phase of COVID-19.

In response, Dr. Chaim Bell, Physician-in-Chief and Dr. Kieran Quinn, a General Internal Medicine and Palliative Care physician at Sinai Health co-authored a piece in PLOS Medicine that analyzed research on health policy and planning related to the care of patients who survive COVID-19. Drs. Bell and Quinn emphasize that more research is urgently needed to help proactively identify and support the health care needs of COVID-19 survivors, including end-of-life care. This approach will require the development of strategies to prevent and treat post-COVID-19 conditions and encourage interprofessional teams to provide continuing care through innovative health policy interventions.

“While it is unknown whether some of these symptoms will turn into more serious chronic illness, their effects will certainly have huge impacts on health care systems around the world as many survivors’ symptoms affect their ability to work and function. Many of these acute complications will change from an acute problem to having long-lasting effects on the health of millions of people,” says Dr. Quinn.

Early pandemic public messaging strategies focused on flattening the peak of the acute COVID-19 infection curve to preserve the capacity of the health care system. These efforts were generally successful. However, to preserve ongoing system capacity and provide high-quality patient care, the Long COVID tail does not require further flattening, but rather demands new clinical and health policy strategies to address its potential for long-term suffering. Drs. Bell and Quinn write that, “we must recognize that the head of the pandemic often demands our immediate attention, but we must not ignore its long and deadly tail.”