The disproportionate and long-term effect of COVID-19 on Americans of diverse racial and ethnic communities remains under covered, according to Gary Gibbons, M.D., head of the National Institute of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Gibbons is one of several NIH leaders who oversee the NIH’s RECOVER initiative — a $1.15 billion federal research project that aims to provide a better understanding of who is at most risk of experiencing long COVID, why it occurs and how to treat it. (The definition of what constitutes long COVID is still evolving, but generally, patients describe it as having lingering symptoms, such as brain fog and fatigue, lasting for months, even years after initial infection from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease.)
“If I say it is under covered, it’s not a value judgment, but I think [long COVID and health inequities] is an area where we do need deeper exploration,” said Gibbons, who spoke at an AHCJ webinar on NIH’s RECOVER program on Feb. 10.
“Understanding the health disparities and particularly the social determinants of health … and the intersection of the virus … that may be playing a role” in long COVID is a key goal of the RECOVER initiative, he added.
As of January 2023, more than a third of Black and Hispanic adults that had long COVID, also reported severe ongoing symptoms that limited day-to-day functioning, a higher percentage than white Americans who reported they had long COVID, according to an ABC report on a January U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.
One of those adults is Chimere Smith, a former Baltimore teacher, who has had persistent fatigue and fogginess since she contracted COVID-19 in March 2020. ABC highlighted Smith’s story, detailing how her symptoms were dismissed by physicians for more than a year before she was diagnosed with long COVID in 2021.
Gibbons told AHCJ members that NIH RECOVER program researchers are working quickly on studies to address the myriad and complex symptoms of long COVID. Since enrollment in RECOVER studies formally began in mid-2021, RECOVER researchers have enrolled almost 15,000 people in adult cohort studies across the country, he said.
“15,000 individuals … in 15 months …. I actually believe that may be a new speed record for an NIH study of this diversity and complexity,” Gibbons said.
In the coming year, leaders of the National Institute of Health expect to provide more insights about long COVID based on information gathered from cohort studies and analysis of hundreds of thousands of electronic health records. RECOVER also plans to launch clinical trials evaluating potential therapies in key areas: immune dysregulation, cognitive dysfunction, autonomic dysfunction, sleep disorders, and cardiopulmonary dysfunction (which can cause fatigue and difficulty exercising).
And for coverage resources, see AHCJ’s long COVID tip sheet and the long COVID source list created by COVID-19 Data Dispatch editor Betsy Ladyzhets and freelance writer Fiona Lowenstein. Finally, join us at our annual conference in St. Louis, where there will be a March 11 panel on long COVID moderated by Ryan Prior, author of “The Long Haul.”