News Coronavirus Australia’s healthcare system is bracing for long COVID, but there’s still a lot we don’t know

Australia’s healthcare system is bracing for long COVID, but there’s still a lot we don’t know

The healthcare system will have to treat long COVID symptoms well into the future. Photo: Getty
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As Omicron cases skyrocket in NSW and climb elsewhere around Australia, the threat of long COVID looms larger than ever before.

There’s no hard-and-fast definition of long COVID, but common symptoms include fatigue, breathlessness, anxiety and depression, chest pain, brain fog and loss of taste or smell, which can last for anywhere between a few weeks after infection to more than a year.

“Unfortunately, post-COVID-19 conditions have flown under the radar,” RACGP President Dr Karen Price said on Friday.

“Just because you recover from the initial illness, that does not mean you are out of the woods.

“As I have been saying for many months, it might not be the end of your COVID-19 story – it could just be the beginning.”

Associate Professor Martin Henscher is a health economics expert at Deakin Uni who has been researching the Australian healthcare system’s capacity to deal with long COVID.

He estimates that between 9450 and 19,800 people in NSW and Victoria have already suffered from bouts of long COVID that lasted longer than three months.

Even without knowing the full effects of Omicron, the easing of restrictions in most states could see a further 10,000 to 133,000 long COVID cases emerge in future, according to his research.

Although there’s no cure and much more research needs to be done, long COVID has so far been treated with holistic approaches.

To brace for future cases, the RACGP has released new guidelines for GPs to cope with the future influx of long COVID patients.

The new recommendations include identifying people who experienced acute COVID symptoms as high-risk long COVID patients, as well as escalating care for so-called “red flag” symptoms such as unexplained chest pain.

Addressing these issues will require cooperation across the healthcare system.

“Long COVID is not the deciding factor, it doesn’t necessarily even change what we’re doing, but needs to be in the calculus and people need to be thinking about it,” Associate Professor Henscher said.

When the rush begins

“More crucially, the health system needs to be thinking about how it’s actually going to look after these people when they start to come through in large numbers.”

Many people with long COVID symptoms might present to an emergency room, when GPs and other healthcare services can play a role in helping these patients.

People who’ve previously contracted the virus are not necessarily immune against Omicron, either, heightening the importance of boosters to prevent repeat infections and long COVID.

Associate Professor Henscher said that while the healthcare systems in general are resilient, there needs to be close coordination between public and private facilities in order to manage several compounding burdens.

“We’ve now got all these problems of elective surgery backlogs, big backlogs of regular care, and just the health system being under massive stress because of COVID, so it’s an additional demand on top of that,” he said.

For individuals, the safest course of action is to get vaccinated, avoid risky environments, and to wear a mask indoors – even if it’s no longer mandatory in many situations.

Associate Professor Henscher said people should focus on avoiding the virus in the first place, rather than accepting defeat and worrying about the unknown impact of long COVID – an attitude he described as “a self-fulfilling prophecy”.