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“Understanding long-term COVID symptoms is an increasingly pressing priority for doctors and researchers,” notes a recent New York Times article, “as more and more people report debilitating or painful aftereffects that hamper their ability to work or function the way they did before.” The article cites troubling data coming from a new study, “COVID Symptoms, Symptom Clusters, and Predictors for Becoming a Long-Hauler: Looking for Clarity in the Haze of the Pandemic.”

Yong Huang

Yong Huang, a first-year Ph.D. student in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), led the study (currently undergoing peer review but available as a preprint). The work was a collaboration between Huang and his advisers, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science Nikil Dutt and Assistant Professor of Nursing and Computer Science Amir Rahmani, and colleagues from UCI in nursing and the psychological sciences as well as from UCLA, Indiana University, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of Miami. “Many survivors suffer from various long-term post-COVID symptoms that significantly affect their quality of life,” explains Huang.

The team reviewed the electronic medical records of 1,407 people who tested positive for COVID-19 but did not require hospitalization during their infection. “What surprised me the most in this study is the large proportion of patients (27%) who reported symptoms more than 60 days after their infection,” says Huang. “And second, the wide range of symptoms patients may experience, [including] palpitations, dysgeusia, chills, insomnia, hyperhidrosis, and anxiety, which is proof that COVID-19 may affect multiple organs.”

Furthermore, 32% of those experiencing post-COVID symptoms were asymptomatic during their initial infection, and of the 34 children in the study, 11 were long-haulers.

The researchers conducted the study leveraging records from the UC COVID Research Data Set (UC CORDS). “We appreciate the people who put together this de-identified dataset with comprehensive longitudinal data from electronic health records,” says Huang. “UC CORDS provides valuable opportunities for multidisciplinary researchers to discover knowledge from this extensive medical information repository.”

Using the data, the team identified many factors that contribute to the development of long-hauler symptoms. They hope this provides valuable insights for other researchers working to help patients get back to their everyday lives. “It is very important to understand how COVID-19 affects patients’ well-being in the long run,” says Huang. “The biggest take-away from this project is that the long-term impact of COVID-19 on infected individuals’ lives is more severe than we thought.”

— Shani Murray