It’s one of the scariest things about testing positive for COVID-19: What if the symptoms persist for months?
Most people with COVID start feeling better within a few days to a few weeks. But for some, a wide range of symptoms can persist for more than a month after the initial infection. These post-COVID conditions, which are often called long COVID, can be debilitating.
And unfortunately, it’s not that rare.
New data from the US Census Bureau’s ongoing Household Pulse Survey shows that nearly one-third of Washington adults who tested positive for COVID experienced symptoms for three months or longer. The survey was conducted from June 1 to 13, and was completed by roughly 63,000 respondents nationally.
According to the data, an estimated 2.1 million Washingtonians age 18 and older have tested positive for the coronavirus or been diagnosed with COVID by a health care provider. Of those, about 31%, an estimated 662,000, had symptoms that persisted for several months or more.
Washington was among the states with a relatively low share of COVID long-haulers. Nationally, 34% of survey respondents reported symptoms lasting at least three months. That means of the more than 100 million Americans who have received a positive COVID test, a projected 34.6 million have long-lasting symptoms.
The state with the lowest rate of long COVID was Hawaii, at 23%. Many of the other lowest states were in the Northeast. Vermont had the second-lowest rate, at 26%. The state with the highest incidence of long COVID was Alaska, at 53%, followed by West Virginia, at 49%.
The survey also includes data for the 15 largest US metro areas. The Seattle metro, which includes King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, just makes the cut at No. 15.
The rate of COVID long-haulers in Seattle was among the lowest. An estimated 304,000 adults here reported long-COVID symptoms, which represents 26% of the nearly 1.2 million who received a positive test or diagnosis. The metro with the lowest rate was San Francisco, at just 21%. At the other end of the spectrum, in both Phoenix and Riverside-San Bernardino, California, 39% had long-COVID symptoms.
Post-COVID conditions are wide ranging and affect individuals differently. For some, the symptoms are constant, while for others, they come and go. Severe tiredness or fatigue and fever are often reported as symptoms, and many say any physical or mental exertion makes these worse. Other common symptoms include headaches, difficulty breathing, joint and muscle pain, brain fog and loss of taste and smell.
Many people suffering with long COVID also struggle with anxiety and depression.
It is unclear what causes some people to develop long COVID. Also, there is no test for the condition, which complicates a diagnosis. It’s possible that some patients reporting long COVID symptoms are actually suffering with an unrelated health condition.
Research has shown that women are significantly more likely to report post-COVID symptoms than men. The new survey data also reveals a stark gender divide. In Washington, 41% of women with a positive test said they had symptoms for at least three months, compared with just 22% of men. Nationally, there was a similar, though slightly smaller, gap.
It’s not clear why women are more susceptible than men to long COVID, but it could be related to difference in female and male immune systems, and how they respond to infections.
More women also reported testing positive for COVID on the whole. Nationally, 54% of those who received a positive test or diagnosis were women.
In Washington, middle-aged people (40-54 years) were more likely to report long-COVID symptoms than younger or older people.
The survey data doesn’t show a significant difference in the incidence of long COVID between white people and people of color. Nationally, though, Asian people had the lowest rate of long COVID (25%) while Hispanic people had the highest rate, at 39%.
One disparity in the incidence of long COVID is along educational lines. Both in Washington and nationally, people with a four-year college degree or higher had a lower rate of long COVID than those without.
The Household Pulse Survey is an experimental product of the US Census Bureau launched in response to the pandemic. Unlike other census products, which have a long lag time, the Household Pulse Survey provides near real-time data. It is intended to help inform officials and policymakers about the impact of the pandemic on communities across the country, and to provide data to aid in a post-pandemic recovery.