By Ahmed Aboulenein and Julie Steenhuysen
President Joe Biden on Tuesday tasked the U.S. health department with developing a national action plan to tackle the looming health crisis of long COVID, a complex, multi-symptom condition that leaves many of its sufferers unable to work.
Long COVID, which arises months after a COVID-19 infection, affects nearly 7% of all U.S. adults and 2.3% of the overall population and has cost an estimated $386 billion in lost wages, savings and medical bills, according to an analysis by the Solve Long Covid Initiative, a non-profit research and advocacy group.
More than 200 symptoms – many lasting for months – have been associated with the condition, including pain, fatigue, brain fog, breathing difficulty and exhaustion after minimal amounts of physical activity.
“Long COVID is real, and there is still so much we don’t know about it,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, who will lead the government response, said on Tuesday.
“Americans of every age and background are experiencing long COVID,” he added at a press briefing. “To be clear, we are going to use every tool we have to be there for these Americans.”
The plan will expand research, care and disability services for people suffering from the condition, the White House said. Becerra will release the jointly developed National Research Action Plan within 120 days, Biden said in a presidential memorandum.
It addresses some concerns raised by patient advocacy groups, which have criticized the slow speed of the National Institutes of Health’s $1.15 billion RECOVER research program, and aims to accelerate the enrollment of 40,000 people with and without long COVID.
Under the new plan, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will invest $20 million next year to investigate how healthcare systems can best help those with long COVID, mentor primary care practices, and develop multi-specialty clinics across the country.
The plan calls for allocating an additional $25 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from Biden’s 2023 budget – in addition to the agency’s $50 million investment – to better understand and find solutions to characteristics, risk factors, underlying mechanisms, and health impacts of long COVID.
Other provisions include adding more long COVID programs to the 18 Department of Veterans Affairs facilities that already offer them.
HHS also will launch a new project, Health+, aimed at gaining insights into the experiences of those living with the often debilitating condition to help inform high-quality care and contribute to standardized best practices at long COVID clinics.
The plan also aims to translate its findings into actionable disability policies with the Social Security Administration, and work with the Department of Labor on helping affected workers who are deciding if they are able to return to their jobs.