New research has examined long-term symptoms in
COVID cases, looking at the physical and mental health of Te
Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington study participants, almost two
years after their COVID illness.

The Medical
Research Institute of New Zealand (MRINZ), in partnership
with Te Whatu Ora, explored the prevalence of ongoing
symptoms in a cohort of 2020 alpha/beta variant community
COVID-19 cases in the Greater Wellington region, with the
aim of improving understanding of the long-term effects
after COVID infection.

The long-term impacts
of COVID-19 on confirmed cases at least 12 months
post-infection in Wellington, New Zealand: an observational,
crosssectional study’
has been published today in
The New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ).

Dr Nethmi
Kearns, MRINZ Clinical Research Fellow and COVID study lead,
and her team of researchers, examined symptoms and
laboratory abnormalities in just under half of the confirmed
cases of the 2020 alpha/beta variant of community COVID-19
cases in Greater Wellington. Through eight comprehensive
surveys and blood sample analysis the team led an
observational, cross-sectional study looking at symptoms
that continue after initial COVID-19 illness.

52.4% of
the study participants felt that their current overall
health was worse than it was prior to getting COVID-19, and
90% of participants reported at least two ongoing symptoms
since their first illness with COVID-19.

Most people
who have COVID-19 recover soon after the acute phase of the
illness but others experience persistent health problems for
months or longer, and these problems can impact quality of
life and the ability to work. The most common ongoing
symptoms found in the study were depression, anxiety,
fatigue, shortness of breath, light-headedness,
forgetfulness, post-exercise malaise, and trouble

The Greater Wellington Region had 96
confirmed COVID-19 cases during the first wave of the
pandemic from January-August 2020. Of these, 42 of 88
eligible cases took part in the study. The outcomes show a
high prevalence of ongoing traits following the first wave
of COVID-19 infection, with a wide spectrum of symptoms and
symptom severity.

“Between 45–72% of our study
participants reported anxiety, depression, laboured
breathing, pain or discomfort, and sleep difficulties,”
says Dr Kearns. “Ongoing symptoms can have a significant
impact on a person’s health, life and work, as our study
has identified.”

With 47% of New Zealand’s
population now having had COVID, the longer-term
consequences of infection with COVID-19 raises an important
issue for both the health of New Zealanders and the impact
on our health system.

There is no internationally
agreed definition of ‘long COVID’ with various
institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) having
different definitions, albeit with fundamental similarities.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, the clinical definition of long
COVID is ongoing symptoms that continue 12 weeks or more
after infection with SARS-CoV-2.

“While the rate of
COVID-19 cases and deaths have decreased globally, there has
been increasing attention on longer term symptoms following
COVID-19 infection,” says Dr Thornley, Clinical Head of
Department & Medical Officer of Health at Te Whatu Ora,
National Public Health Service, Wellington region. “This
study contributes to the local understanding of illness
among those who have had COVID-19 infection

This research builds on an earlier
study where Dr Kearns, Dr Thornley, and their research team
investigated data showing that that there was no set of
overarching symptoms that could accurately predict COVID
infection, while also showing how COVID does not provoke
severe asthma attacks, an important piece of knowledge given
New Zealand’s significant asthma rates.

The study,
which will now be added to the canon of global data, will
help inform public health interventions both here in
Aotearoa New Zealand, and internationally, during this and
future pandemics.

“COVID-19 and its sequalae remains
a global public health issue,” says Dr Kearns. “Studies
focusing on more recent phases of the pandemic, and
accounting for complexities such as virus variants,
reinfection and vaccination status will be particularly
valuable moving

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