As a society, we have been enduring life in a pandemic for over half a year. Though we have been feeling the effects of COVID-19 for a long time, medically speaking the disease is still very new to us. It is important to remember that our knowledge is still developing regarding the virus and much remains unknown—specifically the long-term effects of the disease.

There is a common misconception that once a patient infected with COVID has a negative test, the issue is resolved.  It is often repeated that according to the World Health Organization, about 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic, and patients typically recover after two weeks (Carfì, Bernabei, & Landi, 2020). 

Yet there are tens of thousands of people who have joined support groups on Slack and Facebook, who call themselves “long-termers” or “long-haulers” who are wrestling with serious COVID-19 symptoms a month or more after being infected with the disease (Yong, 2020). 

There are essentially two types of COVID patients experiencing who appear to be experiencing long-term effects of the virus—those who were ventilated due to critical symptoms and those who have residual symptoms despite having “mild” symptoms while infected with the disease (Liu, Yan, Wan, Xiang, Le, & Liu, 2020).

Critical care teams know that the longer patients remain in the intensive care unit (ICU), the more likely they are to suffer “long-term physical, cognitive and emotional effects of being sedated” (Edwards, 2020). In fact, those effects have a name: “post-intensive care syndrome (PICS),” also referred to as post-ICU delirium. PICS is an ongoing challenge even in non-pandemic conditions. An article in 2019 described PICS resulting in cognitive impairment in 30–80% of ICU survivors, the severity may vary and often lasts for years (Colbenson, Johnson, & Wilson, 2019).

As a hypothesis based upon 2019 post-ICU delirium numbers together with an increased number of patients on ventilators due to COVID, and then combined with non-hospitalized virus survivors who are experiencing long-term symptoms, our current circumstances potentially present a public health crisis (Vittori, Lerman, Cascella, Gomez-Morad, Marchetti, Marinangeli, & Picardo, 2020).  This presents hospitals, community practices, and mental health support agencies with an opportunity to expand their care services to meet a growing—and likely lasting—need.

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Author: Seleem Choudhury

Dr. Seleem R. Choudhury, DNP, is an international clinician and operational executive with a demonstrated record of exceeding clinical and financial metrics, developing talent, redeveloping strategy and service lines in academic hospitals and health systems and community settings, and being a positive deviant facilitating change within healthcare.