About 7.5% of U.S. adults—roughly 20 million people—are currently living with Long COVID symptoms, according to new federal data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
That finding, drawn from the Household Pulse Survey run in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, is based on self-reported data from about 62,000 U.S. adults surveyed in June. More than 40% of respondents said they’d previously had COVID-19. And about one in five of those individuals said they still had Long COVID symptoms, defined as new health issues—like fatigue, cognitive issues, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and more—lasting at least three months after infection.
While there’s no single hallmark symptom of Long COVID, many long-haulers report extreme fatigue and crashes after physical activity, cognitive dysfunction, neurological issues, and chronic pain, among other health problems.
In the NCHS survey, Long COVID prevalence varied quite a bit by demographics. As other studies have suggested, women were more likely than men to report current Long COVID symptoms: 9.4% did, compared to 5.5% of men.
Prevalence also varied by racial, sexual, and gender identities. About 9% of Hispanic adults reported long-lasting symptoms, followed by 7.5% of white adults, nearly 7% of Black adults, and almost 4% of Asian adults. Strikingly, an estimated 15% of transgender adults have current Long COVID symptoms, according to the report. About 12% of bisexual adults have Long COVID symptoms, compared to about 7% of straight, gay, or lesbian individuals.
Contrary to earlier research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), younger adults were more likely than older adults to report Long COVID symptoms. Adults ages 50 to 59 were three times more likely to say they had symptoms than adults 80 and older.
Finally, geographic area seemed to play a role. Long COVID prevalence was highest in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Dakota; in all four states, around 12% of adults reported symptoms. While the NCHS survey can’t determine why those states had higher rates of Long COVID than others, they all have relatively low vaccination rates. Previous research has found that vaccination reduces the risk of developing Long COVID after an infection.
Researchers are still trying to determine why some people get Long COVID and exactly how common it is. Previous prevalence estimates have varied widely from study to study, ranging from 5% to 30% or more. The NCHS survey helps clarify how many people in the U.S. are currently suffering post-COVID complications.
Its estimate may still be low, however. For one thing, it doesn’t include children, who can also develop Long COVID.
And based on antibody testing data, the CDC estimated that almost 60% of the U.S. population had had COVID-19 as of February 2022, and many more infections have been reported since then. By contrast, about 40% of NCHS survey respondents said they’d had COVID-19, which raises the question of whether some people were unknowingly infected—and could be experiencing Long COVID symptoms without realizing it.
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme