Long Covid and the vaccines: do they give us any protection?

I come bearing a shred of good news about long Covid. Or at least it’ll look good to you if, like me, you worry about the prospect of long Covid. This comes from two doctors, Sarah Ryan and Lawrence Purpura, who’ve worked extensively with it. I’ll skip the details on their experience–just follow the link if you’re interested. It’s shortcut week here at Notes. In fact, the shortcuts are so short that I’m going to quote them interchangeably. They’ll never know–and if they do I’ll take no shortcuts in apologizing.

They say the long Covid cases they’re seeing have been less severe than the ones they used to see. They attribute that first to the omicron variants attacking the upper respiratory system, where they don’t cause as many of the heavy duty symptoms–lung complications, increased heart rate, lightheadedness, and chronic fatigue–and second to the vaccines being somewhat protective against long Covid. 

No, the vaccines don’t protect us completely, but “studies show that even one dose of a COVID vaccine reduces the odds of developing long COVID by seven to 10 times.”

Break out the ice cream so we can celebrate, will you? Or at least an M&M.

Irrelevant photo: Fields after a December frost.

Who’s most at risk? An article in Cell “identified four factors that correlate with greater risk of long Covid—type 2 diabetes, prior infection with Epstein-Barr virus, level of Sars-CoV-2 RNA detected in the blood, and the presence of autoantibodies.”

A different study sees being female as an increased risk. That same study saw people’s risk decrease by 30% if they’d have two doses of vaccine.

How likely are people with Covid to get long Covid? No one has a good answer to that. There’s no one definition of long Covid, which makes it next to impossible–or maybe that’s completely impossible–to compile statistics. 

Still, they estimate that something like 1% to 5% of Covid patients will go on to get moderate to severe long Covid. At twelve weeks, around 25% of them report fatigue, 25% report insomnia, 20% report increased heart rate or dizziness, and 15% report neurocognitive deficits–things like short-term memory problems. Some of those symptoms will be very mild to some disabling.

A different study came up with 1% of people who had Covid but weren’t hospitalized coming down with long Covid, 6% of people who were hospitalized, and 32% of people who ended up in intensive care units.

Many people will have what Ryan and Purpura call “profound recovery” in three to six months; 10% will have symptoms that go on for more than a year. An even smaller percentage will still have symptoms after a year and a half. 

So the news is far from an all-clear, but in a bad-news situation, this is good news.

 

Other long Covid news 

I’ve been stacking up articles on long Covid but never seem to get back to them. But here we are in shortcut week, so let’s do a few quick summaries and then run:

  • Covid’s associated with increased liver stiffness–a possible sign of liver injury–months after infection. Note the hesitancy in there: associated with; a possible sign. Nothing definite, just something worth looking into more.
  • Covid can affect the brain profoundly even months after infection.
  • A different study, from the early stages of the pandemic (I hope that’s significant), linked Covid to impaired reasoning, speed of thinking, and verbal abilities, comparing what they saw to the effects of sleep deprivation. The severity of the symptoms matched the severity of the infection.
  • A small study found Covid can damage the DNA in cardiac tissue. Compared to the 2009 flu, “Covid has led to more severe and long-term cardiovascular disease.”
  • Covid’s associated with increased chances of long-term brain problems, including strokes, cognitive and memory problems, depression, anxiety, and migraines. And if that doesn’t make you anxious, tremors, involuntary muscle contractions, epileptic seizures, brain fog, hearing and vision abnormalities, and balance and coordination problems–basically symptoms like the ones that come with Parkinson’s. Vaccines reduce the chances of having any of this joy land in your life by about 20%. Keep in mind, though, that a group of people who’ve had Covid are more likely to face these problems than a group that hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean all of them will.
  • Covid was associated with an increased chance of stroke and heart attack. If the study’s correct, over the course of a year, for every 1,000 people who had Covid, you’d expect to find five extra strokes, three extra heart attacks, and twelve extra cases of heart failure 

Those last two studies show a pattern but don’t show cause and effect so let’s not go off the deep end with them. 

 

Is Covid no worse than the flu?

The claim that Covid’s just like the flu translates to “Don’t get hysterical.” So an article from Australia has given us a comparison of the two. 

Between the beginning of 2022 and August 28, Australia had 44 times as many Covid cases as flu cases and 42 times as many Covid deaths. 

That makes the death rate from Covid lower, right? It looks that way to this number-phobe, but it also misses the point. The absolute numbers are higher. If you find yourself in the group of people who died, you’re not going to be consoled by the percentages. 

Okay, strictly speaking, if you find yourself in that group you’ll be dead and unlikely to care anymore, but still, you see my point: Some 1,700 people were hospitalized with the flu between the start of the year and some date in September–pick a number, any number, because here at Notes we don’t really care. Compare that to a single day in July 2022 when 5,429 people were hospitalized with Covid.

 

Life expectancy

I kind of ditched our good news theme there, didn’t I? Sorry. I had some, I spent it all in one place, and now it’s gone. To hell with it, let’s do more bad news. It’s cheaper.

The Covid pandemic lowered life expectancy worldwide. Or at least in the 29 countries included in one study. That leaves out a bunch, but close enough for our purposes.

Predictably, the losses aren’t evenly distributed. Countries with the most effective responses bounced back to pre-pandemic levels relatively quickly. Countries where the response was less effective may have what the study calls “a protracted health crisis.”

It’s another piece in the argument that Covid’s not just the flu in fancy clothes. Flu in the second half of the twentieth century caused smaller, less widespread drops in life expectancy. 

 

The new variant on the block

The new variant that’s emerged in China is BF.7, which is short for something more complicated, which we don’t need to bother with. It’s more infectious than earlier variants, has a shorter incubation time, and is better at infecting people who’ve already had Covid. The symptoms aren’t that different than we’re used to: fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, and fatigue, but some people end up with vomiting and diarrhoea.

It’s been found in several countries other than China but doesn’t seem to be spreading as quickly in them, although (as I write this, in mid-December) it’s not clear why.