On Wednesday, the Biden-Harris administration announced the creation of a new office focused on Long Covid within the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s a critical step towards legitimizing the lasting, sometimes debilitating effects of the post-viral illness — something that’s been conspicuously absent from public health messaging on the virus.
The White House and HHS outlined the functions and goals of this office, along with other strategies for dealing with the condition, in two reports released today: National Research Action Plan on Long Covid and the Services and Supports for Longer-Term Impacts of Covid-19 report. HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine, MD will lead the newly created office, and is tasked with implementing both reports.
In addition to presenting a broad overview of the government’s approach to conducting crucial research on Long Covid, the reports also compile the existing resources, programs, and assistance available to those living with the condition and their families. And acknowledging that “racial disparities in Long Covid are relatively unexplored,” the action plan highlights the need for inclusive research and “culturally and linguistically effective services” for racial and ethnic minority communities.
Of course, it’s too soon to know how much the new office will be able to accomplish, given that research and programs require money to operate, and, according to the action plan, “HHS will need to work with private partners and with Congress to fund and support action on these items.” And because of the uncertainty surrounding funding, there is not yet an established timeline for when the office and its programs will be up and running. Plus, the wide-reaching effects of Long Covid — impacting everything from a person’s physical and mental health, to their employment and ability to stay in housing — require multiple nuanced solutions, rather than a simple one-size-fits-all approach.
For Kristin Urquiza, co-founder of the advocacy group Marked By COVID, the administration’s plans fall short and lack urgency. “Many of the resources provided in the reports seem like cold comforts and temporary bandaids, when a tourniquet and emergency surgery is needed for people whose lives have been torn apart and are in financial and emotional free-fall due to the government’s handling of the pandemic and their losses,” Urquiza said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Without timelines, staffing, budget, and community-backed policy recommendations, these reports read like a modern day Yellow Pages.”
While, at this point, these strategies are far from comprehensive, those living with Long Covid may view them as a promising development. “These initial reports are an important step as HHS continues to accelerate research and programmatic support to address the consequences of the pandemic and work across sectors to ensure no one is left behind as we continue to build a healthier future,” Levin noted in a statement from HHS.
At this stage, it’s difficult to know how many people are currently living with the post-viral illness, but HHS estimates indicate that between 7.7 and 23 million Americans have developed Long Covid. Of those, roughly one million people may be out of the workforce at any given time as a result of the condition, which the department notes is equivalent to about $50 billion in lost earnings each year.
While the services report details the resources, programs, and support available for those living with Long Covid and their caregivers, it also addresses other longer-term impacts of the pandemic that can affect anyone, regardless of whether they’ve had Covid-19 themselves. Notably, one of the first sections of the report discusses bereavement, acknowledging the individual and collective grief the country has experienced throughout the pandemic that has already resulted in more than one millions deaths. The report also includes a list of resources for those experiencing mental health or substance use challenges as a result of the stresses of life during the pandemic.
Having an office dedicated to Long Covid is necessary not only because of the number of people the condition impacts, but also because both preliminary research and the lived experiences of those who developed Long Covid after being infected in early spring 2020 indicates that symptoms can stick around for at least two years.
Long Covid and the myriad problems it creates aren’t going away. And though it has yet to be seen whether the new HHS Long Covid office will turn words into actions, now, there’s at least some indication that the administration is in it for the long haul, too.