One of the state’s top COVID-19 experts says understanding, preventing and treating the condition known as “long COVID” should be “our highest priority.” 

Speaking during a recent webinar hosted by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Dr. Nasia Safdar said this syndrome has been “underrecognized and underappreciated” despite its potentially widespread impact. Safdar is a professor of infectious diseases in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. 

“For the next foreseeable future, understanding long COVID, identifying therapies and figuring out ways to prevent it has to be our highest priority,” she said. 

This syndrome — also called post-COVID conditions — involves persistent symptoms or new symptoms that arise 30 days or more after the initial infection, Safdar explained. A wide range of symptoms have been reported in those affected, including fatigue, headache, weakness of limbs, muscle pain, loss of concentration, insomnia and others. 

Safdar pointed to research that found patients who received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine had “far less frequency” of all long COVID symptoms compared to those who were unvaccinated. 

“This is even in the people who got vaccinated and still had breakthrough infections … even if you have a breakthrough infection, you’re much less likely to have long COVID if you were vaccinated to begin,” she said. “And there’s a lot of active lines of inquiry underway.” 

She also discussed the current national picture for the COVID-19 pandemic, noting case counts are likely a “huge underestimate” given the widespread availability of at-home tests. Because those results typically aren’t being reported to public health authorities, she expects the majority of cases aren’t being counted. 

Still, she noted about half of the U.S. population has tested positive for antibodies coming from direct infections rather than vaccines. 

“This is also likely to be an underestimate, but this is in part what may help us in the future as we encounter additional variants as long as … whatever immunity we have will also work against them,” she said. “And that, in part, has been the case with what’s circulating now.” 

Because the omicron subvariants of COVID-19 driving the majority of new infections are much more transmissible than earlier forms of the virus, Safdar noted “the six feet of distancing really doesn’t seem to mean much” anymore. 

“Even with a lot more distancing, it’s going to be very hard to contain because now it’s small droplets that are carried on the airstreams from person to person, and difficult for distancing to help that,” she said. “Masking of course is still helpful.” 

The type of mask being worn matters, she added, as people wearing respirators had much lower rates of testing positive for the virus, according to a recent federal study. That’s why these types of masks are more beneficial for those who are immunocompromised, she said. 

Still, she said masking adherence and mask quality are both important factors for reducing viral spread at the population level. 

“Even if it’s cloth masks but everyone is wearing them, it will be better than fewer people wearing a respirator, for instance,” she said. “High efficacy and average adherence is also fine.” 

Watch the video here:

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