Coronavirus patients who suffer multiple symptoms are most likely to suffer long Covid, with many young Australians rendered unable to work and women more at risk than men from the mysterious illness.
One of the country’s leading experts on the condition, Dr Anthony Byrne of Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, has warned the condition is ‘debilitating’ for the potential third of those infected with Covid who then go on to experience ‘long-hauler’ symptoms.
The thoracic physician spoke to Daily Mail Australia about what he’s seeing in the hospital’s dedicated long Covid clinic as the total number of coronavirus infections in Australia tops five million and debate rages about the little-known long-term consequences of the virus.
Long Covid is defined as when people previously infected with the virus suffer ongoing symptoms that go on for longer than 12 weeks.
Some studies have shown as many as a third of all those infected with Covid suffer long-term symptoms, including brain fog, anxiety, fatigue and abnormal breathing.
Even young, healthy people have presented for treatment of long Covid at Dr Byrne’s clinic, including one person who was unable to work due to the illness (pictured, revellers out in Sydney’s CBD)
Dr Byrne says even the young and healthy aren’t being spared by the ‘highly variable and quite debilitating’ condition.
‘I saw a high functioning, young individual, he was in a high-flying job, who got Covid in December and he hasn’t been able to work since,’ he said.
That patient, Dr Byrne said, isn’t able to work because he suffers sleep issues, crippling fatigue and his brain ‘doesn’t work properly’.
It leaves him unable to complete complex tasks and, some days, even find words.
Sufferers of the conditions have reported experiencing symptoms ranging from extreme tiredness, chest pain, shortness of breath, ‘brain fog’, memory loss and changes to taste and smell, among other ailments.
St Vincent’s Hospital (pictured) last month opened the first clinic in New South Wales to treat patients with long Covid
Dr Anthony Byrne (pictured) runs St Vincent’s Hospital’s dedicated long Covid clinic in Sydney and hopes that his research and observations can shed light on the risk factors for catching the debilitating disease
Even if the percentage of people developing long Covid decreases, those suffering the debilitating condition will still require new treatments being developed around the world (pictured, a Covid ward at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital)
THE TELL-TALE SIGNS
Vaccination status, complex health conditions and old age are all risk factors for developing long Covid, while displaying a large number of symptoms when infected could also signal a likelihood of developing the condition, Dr Byrne said.
Simply being a woman is even a risk factor for developing long Covid.
‘Interestingly, being male is a risk factor for being in hospital, but being female is a risk factor for getting long Covid,’ Dr Byrne said.
Dr Byrne has seen a correlation between the number of symptoms shown when someone has Covid, and the likelihood the symptoms will progress to a long Covid diagnosis.
Dr Byrne said widespread vaccination will reduce the amount of people experiencing long Covid going forward (pictured, a nurse being vaccinated in Adelaide)
‘The more symptoms you show when you have a diagnosis acutely, the more likely you are to go on to have long Covid,’ he said.
‘So if you just have the sniffles, that’s probably fine, but if you’ve got a headache, shortness of breath, fever… count them up. If there’s more than five, there’s an increased risk of long Covid.’
HOW IT’S TREATED
Treating long Covid is a lot like ‘detective work’ for the specialists at Dr Byrne’s clinic.
‘We’re still finding our feet, because this long Covid thing is so nebulous, you’ve got to really nut it out,’ he said.
The trouble for doctors is that some symptoms are easier to spot and treat than others.
Dr Byrne said some while patients come into hospital with shortness of breath that is caused by lung scarring visible on scans, other patients may not have anything obvious at all to explain their condition.
‘There are people with breathlessness and you can do a CT scan and you won’t see anything,’ he said.
Much of the job involves isolating the patient’s symptoms to a specific organ and matching them to already known conditions with treatment options.
Treatments for long Covid can range from specialists and physios to psychologists who assist those who’ve been unable to work transition back to working life
Another method that Dr Byrne said is working in reducing patients’ pain is treating the other issues that may combine with long Covid.
‘You might find some people have got obstructive sleep apnea, a really common thing and a risk factor for (developing) long Covid,’ he said.
‘You might be just finding it now, but you can treat it. You can diagnose it, treat it, and potentially make them better.’
Though many are heralding the end of the pandemic, Dr Byrne and his colleagues don’t see the virus disappearing any time soon.
‘I think Covid is not going anywhere, It will be around for a long time to come. It’s going to keep mutating, it’s going to evade some vaccines but we’ll get new vaccines.
‘Respiratory physicians like myself think it will be another respiratory virus that we can manage but that some people might get affected badly by.’
Because Covid-19 is new and relatively unique, doctors believe potential future complications might not be known for some time.
One ‘concerning’ initial report found Covid causes heart complications, increasing the risk of death from heart attacks and strokes.
‘It’s a really inflammatory virus, we know it causes damage to blood vessels,’ Dr Byrne said.
‘So you might have recovered from the virus but there’s still some unnoticed inflammation in the blood vessels that results in a year’s time with you having a heart attack.’
Physical and mental exercises are used in long Covid clinics to help patients progressively regain their strength (pictured, Sydney’s new clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital)
Dr Byrne believes the number of people developing long Covid symptoms could decrease over time, with current data suggesting up to 30 per cent of all those infected with Covid develop the condition.
Even then, Dr Byrne said it will still affect thousands of Australians.
‘I think those numbers will come down. That 30 per cent number will become less, but we’re still collecting data and we don’t have a good sense of it.
‘Its also a matter of how much less. Let’s be really optimistic and say it will become one per cent, one per cent of four million Australians that have had Covid up until now is still 40,000 people.
‘That’s still a lot of people with long Covid and it’s probably way more than that.’
Dr Byrne’s long Covid clinic opened in March, treating sufferers of the baffling condition as case numbers continue to surge.
The St Vincent’s Hospital clinic in Sydney is the first of its kind in New South Wales with a team of doctors set up to treat and rehabilitate people suffering lingering Covid symptoms.
The clinic will take in patients referred by doctors and GPs for treatment for long Covid (pictured, a patient in Sydney)
Patients will be able to attend the clinic with a referral from their GP, as experts frantically work to help sufferers of the debilitating and mysterious condition.
Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation researched the effect of long Covid on public health before the Omicron wave in 2021.
‘We calculated the impact of long Covid as Australia opens up. Even without Omicron, we’re worried.’ the institute said in a press release.
‘Long Covid will increasingly drive the burden of Covid illness, even as death rates decline.’