Recovery from COVID-!9

Have you experienced a bout with influenza? The recovery period for outpatients with influenza after a positive test averages about two weeks. Symptoms of a cold persist for about seven to 10 days.

What is the recovery time for SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19? Findings from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study offer a description of the recovery process after a positive reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test for SARS-COV-2. The RT-PCR test detects nucleic acid from SARS-CoV-2 in upper and lower respiratory specimens.

The researchers conducted interviews with 292 individuals, ages 18 and above, who tested positive for COVID-19 between April 15 and June 25. The interviews occurred two to three weeks after each respondent’s test date, and interviewees responded to questions about their symptoms present during the test, symptoms present during the interview, and any medical conditions.  

Of the 292 respondents, 274 (94%) reported to have experienced at least one symptom at the time of testing. The average age of the respondents was 42.5 years, and the median number of days that respondents disclosed feeling unwell before testing was three days. Of these 274 respondents, 35% did not return to their usual state of health by the interview day.

Additionally, 43% of these 274 people reported coughing, 35% reported fatigue, and 29% reported shortness of breath. Coughs and fatigue were less likely to be resolved by their interview dates, with only 43% and 35% resolved by then. In contrast, among respondents reporting fever and chills on the day of testing, these symptoms ended by the interview date for 97% and 96% of the respondents, respectively.

After outpatient testing, 7% of the respondents reported being hospitalized, a median of 3.5 days after the test. A majority of the respondents, roughly 65%, indicated returning to their normal state of health in a median of seven days from the date of testing. Older respondents reported taking longer to return to their usual state of health.

Looking more closely at the data, only 26% of the respondents aged 13-34 reported to have not returned to their usual states of health by their interview dates, as opposed to 47% for those aged 50 years and above. Of those with three more chronic medical conditions, 57% reported to have not returned to their usual states of health, with 46% reporting the same for people with two medical conditions, and 28% for those with no chronic conditions.

To summarize, approximately 33% of the respondents did not return to their usual states of health 14-21 days after testing positive. This is true for young people, even those without medical conditions; however, medical conditions, age, and more can contribute to the prolonging of illness as well. These findings contrast with our understandings of influenza, with 90% of patients who recover within 2 weeks.

Interestingly enough, this study did not find an association between race and ethnicity and prolonged illness, but this could be due to the small size of the study.

The results from this study provide understandings of the impact of COVID-19; more specifically, that the virus can result in prolonged illness for people with only mild symptoms and experiences, even for young people.

This preliminary analysis offers valuable information for college and university leaders as well as employers. The study suggests a need to accommodate students, faculty, and staff in colleges and universities experiencing symptoms associated with SARS-COV-2 for up to three weeks. Employers should prepare for a similar period of support.

Kally Xu is a John B. Ervin Scholar and Gephardt Institute Civic Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is a candidate in the 3-2 Masters of Public Health in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and the A.B. program in International and Area Studies and Asian American Studies.

William F. Tate IV is the executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina; Educational Foundation Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Family & Preventive Medicine. Find him on twitter @WFTate4.

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