Working-age women who are hospitalised with coronavirus are five times as likely to develop long Covid as men in the same age group, according to research presented to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
Preliminary data shared with scientific advisers suggests that women under 50 are five times as likely as men under 50 to report a new disability, six times as likely to experience greater breathlessness, and twice as likely to feel more fatigued up to 11 months after leaving hospital.
The findings from the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (Isaric) group have yet to be peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal, but will nonetheless raise concerns over the potential impact of Covid infections on the working population as restrictions across the UK are eased.
The Isaric findings build on previous evidence that women are bearing the brunt of long Covid. According to a recent study from King’s College London, women are in general twice as likely as men to have Covid symptoms last longer than a month – an effect that in some cases may be connected to differences between male and female immune systems.
While more than 23 million people in the UK have now received at least one shot of vaccine, the immunisation is not 100% protective, and two-thirds of the population has yet to receive a first jab. Scientific advisers stressed that while Covid cases had come down sharply during lockdown, prevalence remained “very high” compared with rates last summer.
Writing in the minutes of a Sage meeting on 25 February, the advisers stressed the importance of keeping infection rates down, particularly as it remains unclear whether vaccines offer any protection against long Covid, also known as post-Covid syndromes.
The document states that the long-term impact of long Covid on the working-age population “is not well understood, but it may be very significant”.
The Isaric study reports symptoms from 325 people who were hospitalised with Covid. These make up about 40% of the patients researchers approached, and may be the ones who suffered most with long-term symptoms.
Half of the patients who took part were still recovering on average seven months after being discharged. Three-quarters of these had fatigue, half were more breathless than before, and about a quarter had new disabilities affecting their sight, memory, communication or ability to walk or look after themselves.
One striking finding was that persistent symptoms among those discharged from hospital were not related to older age or a person having a pre-existing medical condition. “In fact, younger participants were more likely to report persistent symptoms and ongoing difficulties,” the researchers state.
The Sage advisers noted that overall, the participants reported a drop in quality of life, including greater difficulty doing their usual activities and increases in anxiety, depression and pain.
Further work is under way on long Covid, including studies on people who have not been hospitalised, and plans to bring together different studies to better understand the overall impact of the syndromes, the minutes add. “It will be important to have a better understanding of physiology, including oxygen levels, lung function and evidence of scarring,” the document says.
The minutes of the February Sage meeting go on to highlight the need for better vaccine coverage among care home workers. Figures in the document suggest that about 95% of care home residents have received at least one shot of a vaccine, compared with only 65%-70% of care home workers.
The low coverage is explained by a mix of poorer access to vaccines and some hesitancy to have the jab, the scientists believe. Though uptake is gradually improving, the committee warns that “in order to limit outbreaks through vaccination alone, staff coverage would need to increase to a minimum of 75% in every care home setting.”