One Third of Outpatients With COVID-19 Are Unwell Weeks Later


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COVID-19 can mean weeks’ long illness, even in young adults and those without chronic conditions who have mild disease and are treated in outpatient settings, according to survey results in today’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Mark W. Tenforde, MD, PhD, for the CDC-COVID-19 Response Team, and colleagues conducted a multistate telephone survey of symptomatic adults who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. The researchers found that 35% had not returned to their usual state of wellness when they were interviewed 2 to 3 weeks after testing.

Among the 270 of 274 people interviewed for whom there were data on return to health, 175 (65%) reported that they had returned to baseline health an average of 7 days from the date of testing.

Among the 274 symptomatic outpatients, the median number of symptoms was seven. Fatigue (71%), cough (61%), and headache (61%) were the most commonly reported symptoms.

Prolonged illness is well described in adults hospitalized with severe COVID-19, especially among the older adult population, but little is known about other groups.

The proportion who had not returned to health differed by age: 26% of interviewees aged 18 to 34 years, 32% of those aged 35 to 49 years, and 47% of those at least 50 years old reported not having returned to their usual health (P = .010) within 14 to 21 days after receiving positive test results.

Among respondents aged 18 to 34 years who had no chronic medical condition, 19% (nine of 48) reported not having returned to their usual state of health during that time.

Public health messaging targeting younger adults, a group who might not be expected to be sick for weeks with mild disease, is particularly important, the authors write.

Kyle Annen, DO, medical director of transfusion services and patient blood management at Children’s Hospital Colorado and assistant professor of pathology at the University of Colorado in Denver, told Medscape Medical News that an important message is that delayed recovery (symptoms of fatigue, cough, and shortness of breath) was evident in nearly a quarter of 18- to 34-year-olds and in a third of 35- to 49-year-olds who were not sick enough to require hospitalization.

“This should impact the perception of this being a mild illness in the young adult population and encourage them to comply with recommendations of social distancing, masking, and hand washing,” she said.

Recovery time of more than 2 weeks will affect work and school performance, especially prolonged fatigue, she noted. This was one of the prominent symptoms that were reported to be slow to dissipate.

“I think the most interesting point in this study is that of underlying conditions; psychiatric conditions were significantly correlated with prolonged recovery. I don’t think that many people think of depression and anxiety as an underlying medical condition in regards to COVID-19 risk. This could potentially have an impact, as depression and anxiety rates will likely increase as COVID-19 continues,” she said.

Buddy Creech, MD, MPH, told Medscape Medical News, “It is important to realize that the spectrum of disease with COVID is wide, including mild disease, severe disease, and prolonged disease. This report helps us understand some of the risk factors for those with prolonged symptoms and may allow us to refine even more clearly how we prioritize treatment and vaccine administration, once available.

“It also highlights the challenge of dealing with this virus. Not only do the symptoms vary widely, but so do the incubation period, the duration of symptoms, and the residual symptoms that sometimes occur. Clearly, there is much we still need to understand about this virus,” he said.

The interviews were conducted from April 15 to June 25 with a random sample of adults at least 18 years old who had received a first positive test result for SARS-CoV-2 at an outpatient visit at one of 14 US academic healthcare systems in 13 states.

Annen and Creech have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Morb Mortal Wkly Rev. Published online July 24, 2020. Full text

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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