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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is finalizing new guidelines to help clinicians diagnose and manage long COVID, or post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV2 infection.
In a daylong congressional hearing on Thursday, John Brooks, MD, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, testified that the guidelines were going through the clearance process at the agency, but would be forthcoming.
“They should be coming out very shortly,” Brooks said.
The guidelines, which were developed in collaboration with newly established long-COVID clinics and patient advocacy groups, will “illustrate how to diagnose and begin to pull together what we know about management,” of the complex condition, he said.
For many doctors and patients who are struggling to understand symptoms that persist for months after the initial viral infection, the guidelines can’t come soon enough.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, who also testified at the hearing, estimated that as many as three million people could be left with chronic health problems after even mild COVID infections.
“I can’t overstate how serious this issue is for the health of our nation,” he said.
Collins said his estimate was based on studies showing that roughly 10% of people who get COVID could be affected by this and whose “long-term course is uncertain,” he said. So far, more than 32 million Americans are known to have been infected with the new coronavirus.
“We need to make sure we put our arms around them and bring answers and care to them,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California who is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Health.
Jennifer Possick, MD, who directs the post-COVID recovery program at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, testified that the tidal wave of patients she and her colleagues were seeing was overwhelming.
“We are a well-resourced program at an academic medical center, but we are swamped by the need in our community. This year, we have seen more patients with post covid-19 conditions in our clinic alone than we have new cases of asthma and COPD combined,” she said. “The magnitude of the challenge is daunting.”
Possick estimated that there are “over 60” clinics in the United States that have started to treat long-COVID patients, but said they are grassroots efforts and all very different from each other.
“Whoever had the resources, had the time, [and] was able to take the initiative and forge to the relationships because most of them are multidisciplinary, did so,” she said.
Several representatives shared moving personal stories of loved ones or staffers who remained ill months after a COVID diagnosis.
Congresswoman Ann Kuster, from New Hampshire, talked about her 34-year-old niece, a member of the US Ski Team, who had COVID just over a year ago and “continues to struggle with everything, even the simplest activities of daily living” she said. “She has to choose between taking a shower or making dinner. I’m so proud of her for hanging in there.”
Long-COVID patients invited to testify by the subcommittee described months of disability that left them with soaring medical bills and no ability to work to pay them.
“I am now a poor, black disabled woman, living with long COVID,” said Chimere Smith, who said she had been a school teacher in Baltimore. “Saying it aloud makes it no more eas[y] to accept.”
She said COVID had affected her ability to think clearly and caused debilitating fatigue, which prevented her from working. She said she lost her vision for almost 5 months because doctors misdiagnosed a cataract caused by long COVID as dry eye.
“If I did not have a loving family, I [would] be speaking to you today [from] my car, the only property I now own.”
Smith said that long-COVID clinics, which are mostly housed within academic medical centers, were not going to be accessible for all long-haulers, who are disproportionately women of color. She has started a clinic, based out of her church, to help other patients from her community.
“No one wants to hear that long COVID has decimated my life or the lives of other black women in less than a year,” Smith said. “We’ve just been waiting and hoping for compassionate doctors and politicians who would acknowledge us.”