Long Covid is not just a problem for sufferers and unless we have the right response in place then it could cause problems for everyone on a hospital waiting list, as well as society in general.
Long Covid is a condition recognised by the World Health Organisation with common symptoms including tiredness, shortness of breath and brain fog among others and has an impact on everyday functioning. It is described as long Covid where these continue after the first infection for at least 3 months and the symptoms cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.
In other words, you must suffer tiredness, breathlessness and/or brain fog for at least 90 days and go through a battery of tests to rule everything else out before it can be officially called long Covid.
We don’t have any official figures but the HSE in a letter to me indicated it believes that between 10-20% of those who contracted Covid-19 may now be suffering from long Covid. An analysis of 21 scientific studies published in Nature last month found that the prevalence of long Covid among children and adolescents was 25%. Officially there are over 1.5m PCR confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ireland, which could leave up to 300,000 people suffering from long Covid and we all know that there are many more people with a Covid infection who never had it verified by a PCR test.
So not only do we potentially have large numbers of people suffering from long Covid but because there is no simple test to diagnose it, patients must get through a range of hospital tests to exclude every other illness before a diagnosis of long Covid can be confirmed.
We are told there are over 900,000 people on a waiting list for hospital appointments or treatment and if we add another 300,000 people with long Covid to these lists it will overwhelm these already horrendous waiting lists. We cannot allow this to happen.
Since last September I have been arguing that we need to set up special long Covid clinics for adults and for children in our regional hospitals. We have some clinics mainly in the Dublin area but even these do not deal with all aspects of this illness because we are waiting on the HSE to implement a common standard for the care of long Covid patients. These clinics need to be staffed by a range of experts in respiratory, cardiology, rheumatology, radiology, psychology, and immunology services. Having such teams would mean that instead of having these 300,000 people on several waiting lists, for example to see a respiratory consultant about their breathing difficulties and a neurologist about the brain fog, that they are on a single but separate waiting list to see all the experts at one time.
Straight away putting these clinics in place will reduce the number of unnecessary chest X-rays and clinic appointments for people with long Covid and it will help to focus on those patients most likely to require follow-up care.
Not only will this mean that thousands of people with a complex set of illnesses will be treated on time, but it will also mean they are not taking away vital appointments that other patients have been waiting for since well before Covid.
But we are still in the dark on how many people have long Covid in Ireland because the HSE has yet to start measuring the illness.
Last week I published the first set of official figures that showed there are nearly 4,000 people who had to leave work because they contracted Covid and after 3 months were still too sick to work. This is only the very tip of the iceberg because these figures only cover those people who were entitled to a social welfare payment 3 months after contracting Covid and the figures do not include people who returned to work and then had to leave again because of long Covid.
And despite all that, the figures show that up to 1 in 10 people who received Illness Benefit from the Department of Social Protection did so because of long Covid.
There are many more people who have returned to work and are not able to perform to the standard that they did before they got Covid-19. This impacts on the company they work in and, along with all other suffers, on their daily life and society.
So, we cannot ignore this illness any longer. We need to start counting the number of people with long Covid and we need to start treating this illness before it brings our health service to a halt and causes far more longer-term problems.