According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 7% of American adults say they have experienced “long COVID,” which was defined as “a range of symptoms” associated with COVID-19 that “last weeks or months” after the initial infection ends.
Extrapolated to the entire U.S. population, that number represents about 18 million people, underscoring the pervasiveness of the condition more than two years into a pandemic that has infected well over 100 million Americans.
Research on long COVID continues to emerge. The U.K. government has been tracking the prevalence of ongoing symptoms; last week the Biden administration announced that it was ramping up its own long COVID efforts as well. And numerous studies have attempted to gauge how widespread the still-ill-defined condition is.
A family leaves a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site in Los Angeles.
A family leaves a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site in Los Angeles in January. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
In comparison, the Yahoo News/YouGov poll of 1,619 U.S. adults, which was conducted from March 31 to April 4, is more limited in scope, relying on a small but statistically significant sample to pinpoint population-wide patterns. That said, the Yahoo News/YouGov estimate of 18 million adult U.S. long COVID patients aligns with the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation’s own estimate (about 24 million U.S. long COVID patients of all ages), suggesting that the new survey is at least somewhat representative.
Likewise, 21% of Americans tell Yahoo News and YouGov that they have tested positive for COVID-19, and an additional 15% say they have never tested positive but have experienced symptoms they “believe were COVID-19.” The 7% of respondents who consider themselves long COVID patients account for one-third of the first group (confirmed cases) and one-fifth of the two groups combined (confirmed cases plus suspected cases) — again, right in line with early studies showing that anywhere from 10% to 36% of COVID survivors continue to report at least one symptom up to six months after first testing positive.
At the same time, other findings from the survey may help temper rising fears about long COVID’s severity and staying power — and provide valuable context on the risk of contracting it today versus earlier in the pandemic.
First, long COVID symptoms are varied but not wildly different from COVID symptoms themselves. By far the most common is fatigue (73%), the only symptom reported by a majority of long COVID patients. Next is “headache or muscle pain” at 44%, with “shortness of breath or difficulty breathing” (39%) and “dizziness when you stand” (38%) not far behind. “Memory, concentration or sleep problems” (34%), “worsened symptoms after physical or mental activities” (28%) and “fast or pounding heartbeat” (23%) are less common.
A woman who is immunocompromised speaks with a nurse after receiving a second booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine in Waterford, Michigan.
A woman who is immunocompromised speaks with a nurse after receiving a second booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine in Waterford, Mich., on Friday. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)
The duration of symptoms varies as well, with just 21% of long COVID patients reporting that theirs “are not getting better” and that they “continue to this day.” Far more say that their long COVID symptoms have either “ended” (35%) or “are getting better”(39%).
Meanwhile, just 3% of long COVID patients say their symptoms are so persistent and severe that they “have serious problems living normally,” compared to 28% who say they have “no problems living normally” and 29% who say they have “some problems living normally.” When asked if treatments have helped alleviate their symptoms, equal numbers say yes (40%) and no (39%).
In recent weeks, some long COVID patient advocates have described the ongoing pandemic as a “mass disabling event” and called for continuing mitigations to minimize not just hospitalizations and deaths but even seemingly mild infections — any of which, they say, might lead to debilitating long-term health consequences, including increased risk of diabetes, blood clots and cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes. A recent Brookings Institution analysis found that the “equivalent of 1.6 million people are missing from the full-time [U.S.] workforce because of [long COVID],” according to CBS News.
Skeptics of indefinite mitigation measures have responded that risk factors for long COVID — which may include high initial viral loads, reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus, the presence of certain autoantibodies and Type 2 diabetes — are becoming clearer; that most other viruses (such as influenza and strep throat) can also trigger stubbornly persistent symptoms in an unlucky subset of patients; that the milder Omicron variant may not produce as much long COVID as the strains it displaced; and, perhaps most importantly, that increasing levels of immunity (especially through vaccination and boosting) could further reduce risk, as could highly effective antiviral treatments. So far, multiple studies in the U.K., Israel and the U.S. have found that vaccinated people have a 50% lower chance of developing long COVID than their unvaccinated peers.
Ultimately, it’s a debate over whether long COVID is such a big threat today that it justifies a continued collective effort to limit infection as much as possible — or whether it is becoming a smaller threat that individuals can choose to manage themselves through vaccination, therapeutics and personal precautions.
The Yahoo News/YouGov poll will not settle this question. But it can provide a tantalizing clue about how the risk of contracting long COVID during the Omicron era — when three-quarters of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated and nearly half have been boosted — compares to the risk of contracting it earlier in the pandemic.
Sandie Bushnur, a hospital sitter, provides companionship and observation for patients in the ICU at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif
Sandie Bushnur, a hospital sitter, provides companionship and observation for patients in the ICU at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif., in February. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
According to the survey, just 15% of those with long COVID say they contracted the infection “that led to [their] symptoms” after Omicron became dominant in the U.S. — that is, after November 2021. In contrast, most (56%) trace their symptoms back to an infection they had prior to May 2021, which is when full vaccination took hold in the United States. And more than half of those respondents — a full 35% of all long COVID patients — say they were infected before any Americans had been fully vaccinated (that is, before January 2021).
Overall, Americans are concerned about long COVID. About four in 10 Americans say a friend, family member or they themselves have experienced the condition. Roughly the same percent share say they’re worried about COVID-19 giving them long COVID (43%) — outnumbering those who worry about the virus hospitalizing them (37%) or killing them (34%) — and describe it as “a big problem that we should do everything in our power to prevent” (42%).
Yet it’s unclear how far most Americans are willing to go to limit their risk of long COVID by limiting their exposure to the virus. On the one hand, a majority (53%) says they “plan to take precautions indefinitely to prevent myself from ever getting COVID” — including a full 73% of those who’ve had a booster dose — with only 30% of Americans saying the opposite. Yet 39% also say they’re wearing a mask “less often” than one month ago, and fewer than half (46%) now describe masking outside the home as something they do “always” (28%) or “most of the time” (18%), down from 53% in March.
Likewise, just 32% of Americans say mask mandates are “always helpful and should stay in place indefinitely”; an equivalent number think “they were never helpful” (23%) or “they were helpful in the past, but no longer” (10%). And only 50% would support the return of mask mandates if and when cases rise again in their area, with even fewer saying they’d be willing to attend fewer indoor gatherings (29%); eat or drink indoors less often at bars and restaurants (26%); get another vaccine dose if eligible (35%); or test themselves more often for COVID (15%).