Most COVID-19 Survivors Return to Work
Within 2 Years

Heidi Splete

May 16, 2022

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Regardless of the severity of their initial illness, 89% of people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 had returned to their original work 2 years later, a new study shows.

The burden of persistent COVID-19 symptoms appeared to improve over time, but a higher percentage of former patients reported poor health, compared with the general population. This suggests that some patients need more time to completely recover from COVID-19, wrote the authors of the new study, which was published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine. Previous research has shown that the health effects of COVID-19 last for up to a year, but data from longer-term studies are limited, said Lixue Huang, MD, of Capital Medical University, Beijing, one of the study authors, and colleagues.

Methods and Results

In the new study, the researchers reviewed data from 1,192 adult patients who were discharged from the hospital after surviving COVID-19 between Jan. 7, 2020, and May 29, 2020. The researchers measured the participants' health outcomes at 6 months, 12 months, and 2 years after their onset of symptoms. A community-based dataset of 3,383 adults with no history of COVID-19 served as controls to measure the recovery of the COVID-19 patients.

The median age of the patients at the time of hospital discharge was 57 years, and 46% were women. The median follow-up time after the onset of symptoms was 185 days, 349 days, and 685 days for the 6-month, 12-month, and 2-year visits, respectively. The researchers measured health outcomes using a 6-min walking distance (6MWD) test, laboratory tests, and questionnaires about symptoms, mental health, health-related quality of life, returning to work, and health care use since leaving the hospital.

Overall, the proportion of COVID-19 survivors with at least one symptom decreased from 68% at 6 months to 55% at 2 years (P < .0001). The most frequent symptoms were fatigue and muscle weakness, reported by approximately one-third of the patients (31%); sleep problems also were reported by 31% of the patients.

The proportion of individuals with poor results on the 6MWD decreased continuously over time, not only in COVID-19 survivors overall, but also in three subgroups of varying initial disease severity. Of the 494 survivors who reported working before becoming ill, 438 (89%) had returned to their original jobs 2 years later. The most common reasons for not returning to work were decreased physical function, unwillingness to return, and unemployment, the researchers noted.

However, at 2 years, COVID-19 survivors reported more pain and discomfort, as well as more anxiety and depression, compared with the controls (23% vs. 5% and 12% vs. 5%, respectively).

In addition, significantly more survivors who needed high levels of respiratory support while hospitalized had lung diffusion impairment (65%), reduced residual volume (62%), and total lung capacity (39%), compared with matched controls (36%, 20%, and 6%, respectively) at 2 years.

Long-COVID Concerns

Approximately half of the survivors had symptoms of long COVID at 2 years. These individuals were more likely to report pain or discomfort or anxiety or depression, as well as mobility problems, compared to survivors without long COVID. Participants with long-COVID symptoms were more than twice as likely to have an outpatient clinic visit (odds ratio, 2.82), and not quite twice as likely to be rehospitalized (OR, 1.64).

"We found that [health-related quality of life], exercise capacity, and mental health continued to improve throughout the 2 years regardless of initial disease severity, but about half still had symptomatic sequelae at 2 years," the researchers wrote in their paper.

Findings Can Inform Doctor-Patient Discussions

"We are increasingly recognizing that the health effects of COVID-19 may persist beyond acute illness, therefore this is a timely study to assess the long-term impact of COVID-19 with a long follow-up period," said Suman Pal, MD, an internal medicine physician at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in an interview.

The findings are consistent with the existing literature, said Pal, who was not involved in the study. The data from the study "can help clinicians have discussions regarding expected recovery and long-term prognosis for patients with COVID-19," he noted.

What patients should know is that "studies such as this can help COVID-19 survivors understand and monitor persistent symptoms they may experience, and bring them to the attention of their clinicians," said Pal.

However, "As a single-center study with high attrition of subjects during the study period, the findings may not be generalizable," Pal emphasized. "Larger-scale studies and patient registries distributed over different geographical areas and time periods will help obtain a better understanding of the nature and prevalence of long COVID," he said.

The study findings were limited by several factors, including the lack of formerly hospitalized controls with respiratory infections other than COVID-19 to determine which outcomes are COVID-19 specific, the researchers noted. Other limitations included the use of data from only patients at a single center, and from the early stages of the pandemic, as well as the use of self-reports for comorbidities and health outcomes, they said.

However, the results represent the longest-known published longitudinal follow-up of patients who recovered from acute COVID-19, the researchers emphasized. Study strengths included the large sample size, longitudinal design, and long-term follow-up with non-COVID controls to determine outcomes. The researchers noted their plans to conduct annual follow-ups in the current study population. They added that more research is needed to explore rehabilitation programs to promote recovery for COVID-19 survivors and to reduce the effects of long COVID.

The study was supported by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, National Natural Science Foundation of China, National Key Research and Development Program of China, National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Major Projects of National Science and Technology on New Drug Creation and Development of Pulmonary Tuberculosis, China Evergrande Group, Jack Ma Foundation, Sino Biopharmaceutical, Ping An Insurance (Group), and New Sunshine Charity Foundation. The researchers and Pal had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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