Taking the long view on long Covid
The pandemic is over, so we are told. But the reality this narrative ignores is that the pandemic is not over simply because we wish it was, says Mohammed Hussain…
The SARS CoV-2 virus that causes Covid has its own inexorable life cycle, of which periods of low prevalence and multiple waves are a natural part. We cannot know for certain whether we are nearer the end of this pandemic or still nearer the start.
We do know that we have better treatments and we know enough to mitigate the harms from this deadly pandemic. As well as minimising the chances of spreading Covid, we also need to focus on those who have been ravaged by this terrible illness and wear its scars physically, emotionally, internally and mentally.
Long Covid is real and its impacts on people are real and deserve a greater response and understanding. Data suggests that between 850,000 to one million individuals in the UK are experiencing long Covid symptoms.
We know from the first waves of Covid that, like other frontline care providers, some pharmacists and their staff lost their lives. We also know this impacted minority communities more than the general population.
What has received less attention, including from within the profession, are the numbers of individuals who have been left with long-lasting effects arising from Covid that have changed their lives forever.
We do not appear to have any national, profession-wide processes supported by NHS England, the professional bodies or any other pharmacy organisation to systematically offer help and support to pharmacy team members with long Covid.
Even the inclusive pharmacy practice programme at NHSE&I does not appear to address this issue. As a profession, we do not know how many pharmacy staff are affected by long Covid. What support are they getting? What more could be done to assist them and their employers? We urgently need a pharmacy workforce response that includes long Covid.
Without a focus on this area, we will not be able to address it. Accurate data and a unified pan-profession response is needed.
I have witnessed pharmacy friends suffering with long Covid and how they have had to struggle with their health. One of my friends was incubated for two months and spent four months in ICU. He has suffered multiple organ failure and blood clots that have left him with likely lifelong impairments to his health.
On his return to work, he found sympathy from colleagues but little true understanding that long Covid manifestations are diverse, ranging from breathlessness, mobility impairment, brain fog and fatigue. The return to everyday activities may require rehabilitation, physiotherapy, clinical psychology and sustained workplace support.
Unfortunately, I have also seen workplace sympathy for long Covid transform into performance management and even threatening behaviour towards these colleagues. We need to step up as a profession and educate all on the complex nature of long Covid, ensuring that sufferers do not experience a wave of ignorance whilst learning to live with long Covid.
Return-to-work actions should include, as a minimum, a referral to occupational health for a full review of the individual needs of each person. They may also require adjustments to their working patterns or the nature of the work to mitigate fatigue and support rehabilitation such as physio appointments.
Preventing reinfection in these colleagues is also critical as multiple reinfections could lead to further deterioration of their symptoms. Vaccination, masking and use of HEPA air filter machines (high quality filters that can filter airborne viruses out of the air) should all be encouraged.
As a declaration of interest, I am a trustee at Pharmacist Support and have been raising this issue with colleagues. We are looking to see what the charity can also do to help.
The pandemic might be nearly over, it might not, but long Covid is here and we need to take the long view to address the consequences.
Mohammed Hussain is an independent contractor and non-executive director of Bradford Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust.