Long COVID complications manifesting three years on
A passenger wearing protective gear is seen at a train station in Beijing, China on December 28, 2022. COVID-19 cases are climbing again in China. (Photo: AFP)

Health authorities are still assessing the continuing effects of the 'long COVID' phenomenon which has left some Jamaicans, who were infected with the COVID-19 virus, more vulnerable to certain illnesses three years after the first confirmed case on March 10, 2020.

"There are signs that long COVID has had an impact. It has made people who have had COVID more vulnerable to certain things, depending on what their condition was before. So at some point we are going to have to provide tracking and greater advice around this," Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton said in an interview with the Jamaica Observer, reflecting on the gains and remaining challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has not yet been declared over by the World Health Organization.

"What we have to manage now are things that are linked to long COVID, and the extent to which COVID may have created a more vulnerable population based on those who were infected, and the side effects, mental health backlogs, that sort of thing. So COVID must be seen as a potentially ongoing risk to be managed, but also an opportunity to build resilience in our health care system," he stressed.

Dr Tufton said beyond the long COVID cases, there is also the issue of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension that have gone neglected due to the focus on COVID, resulting in a number of uncontrolled cases that have landed some persons in hospital.

"We have seen the worst, and in a sense are trying to normalise living with COVID, but we can't dismiss that COVID still exists and that people are still getting sick and some are dying. We envisioned that it would dissipate substantially, and almost be integrated into the normality of our health profile. What we are seeing three years on is a kind of manifestation of that," he said.

At the same time, the health minister said public health has seen some systems, and infrastructure benefits from the COVID-19 experience. "We have seen a number of COVID wards, for example, being built out, more ventilators being acquired… all that was consistent with the treatment of COVID, now represents part of the generalised infrastructure within the health system, so that is definitely a positive. The lessons around COVID — issues related to immunisation, primary health care response, training, retraining — all that were a consequence of the COVID response would have made the health system more resilient. All of that could become a positive now, having endured the worst with COVID," he outlined.

Dr Tufton said while the lessons learnt are being capitalised on, there are still some challenges, "so the most vulnerable will still be vulnerable. It's a work in progress."

At a recent media briefing, marking three years of the pandemic in the region, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said although the region experienced setbacks that have revealed or aggravated weaknesses in the health systems, the pandemic had presented a unique opportunity to prioritise health in the sustainable development agenda.

PAHO Director Dr Jarbas Barbosa noted that the virus has not settled into a predictable pattern, as in the past month alone, there were more than 1.5 million new cases in the region, and 17,000 deaths. He pointed out that testing rates have dropped, while update for booster shots also continue to decline, stressing, "we cannot be complacent", as countries must continue with vaccination programmes.

He said the region must focus on recovering losses and on rebuilding resilient health systems that work for everyone, as well as being better prepared for future health threats. "This will require increased public spending to expand access to quality health services, especially the most vulnerable populations; investments in primary health care; and building capacities to ensure a sufficient and appropriately trained health workforce."

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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