GPs told to prepare for influx of patients with ‘long COVID’ symptoms

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Doctors are being told to prepare for an influx of patients with debilitating, long-term symptoms after being infected with COVID-19 as the Omicron variant spreads.

As health authorities warn that daily case numbers could hit 25,000 next month, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners is forecasting a spike in people reporting symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, breathlessness and chest pain that persist for weeks after the initial infection has cleared.

RACGP president Karen Price said patients with “vague” symptoms had traditionally struggled to be taken seriously by the medical system.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

In a guidebook to be published on Friday, the RACGP says between 10 and 35 per cent of patients infected with COVID-19 have ongoing symptoms known as “long COVID” – although its incidence is halved in people who are vaccinated.

“It is important to acknowledge that the person’s symptoms are real,” it said. “People may be fearful of stigmatisation of their COVID-19 infection and ongoing symptoms.”

RACGP president Karen Price said patients with “vague” symptoms had traditionally struggled to be taken seriously by the medical system, with conditions such as chronic fatigue poorly understood.

“It’s very important that this isn’t stigmatised,” she said. “Some people with long COVID are struggling to walk up a flight of stairs months after having the virus.”

In a UK study of 20,000 people who had tested positive to COVID-19, 13.7 per cent reported having symptoms 12 weeks after the acute infection. In an Australian study of 3000 people, 80 per cent reported full recovery within a month while 5 per cent reported experiencing symptoms after three months.

GPs should check in with coronavirus patients at the six-week mark after their infection had cleared, the guidebook said, and they should be supported to rest and gradually return to their regular activities if they were suffering from long COVID.

Dr Price said the incidence of long COVID “should act as an extra impetus for all eligible people to get vaccinated right away”.

“Remember that if you contract the virus, you may also suffer from long COVID symptoms for weeks or even months post-illness,” she said. “This isn’t just a rare problem for older people, young people can also experience long COVID.”

Long COVID was “very rare” in children, the guidebook said, but GPs should look out for fever, abdominal pain, significant vomiting and diarrhoea, neurological symptoms or rashes, which could be signs of paediatric inflammatory multi-system syndrome.

GPs will shoulder an increasing caseload of COVID-19 patients being treated in the community for milder versions of the disease, with the federal government paying them an extra rebate of $25 for face-to-face assessment and management.

The Commonwealth is spending $61.4 million on community healthcare for COVID-19 patients and $121.8 million to keep GP respiratory clinics running for another six months.

Dr Price said the $25 rebate was “inadequate to cover costs of this sort of highly personalised care”.

“We are working hard to keep up world-class care during the pandemic and it has been very challenging with many patients delaying or avoiding screenings and consultations,” she said.

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