Cigna study dives into the lingering effects of COVID-19

While researchers are still learning about the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19, a new study from Cigna suggests the lingering effects are preventing a significant number of people from returning to work.

Nurse managers working with the insurer interviewed 172 patients who had been hospitalized due to the novel coronavirus and flagged a number of symptoms these members were continuing to experience.

Common lingering effects included fatigue, shortness of breath and continued loss of taste and smell. Less commonly, patients reported hair loss, neuropathy and challenges with balance and coordination, according to the study.

One in 7 of those surveyed said they had not yet returned to work due to their symptoms, citing lingering fatigue and shortness of breath in particular.

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Saif Rathore, M.D., Cigna’s head of data and analytics innovation, told Fierce Healthcare that the team was surprised by just how many people said they were continuing to feel the effects of COVID-19 following their hospitalization.

The researchers expected to see 15% or 20% of people reporting lingering symptoms. Instead, more than half said they were still feeling the effects one or two months following their hospital discharge, he said.

One of the interviewed members, a truck driver who had returned to the road, said he was forced to regularly pull over due to the shortness of breath he continued to experience, Rathore said.

He said the data should hammer home a key message: COVID-19 isn't just like the flu, and there's still a lot experts don't know about how it works. 

"There's this much longer tail, a much more gradual recovery for some folks and some weird stuff along the way that you wouldn’t expect," Rathore said. "This is not just a respiratory virus, that much is clear."

He said that it's critical for people who are continuing to feel off following a COVID-19 diagnosis to check in with their doctor and get help, as these symptoms are not "something you should ride out on your own."

Rathore said Cigna is using data like this to identify potential risk factors for COVID-19 more quickly, to allow for interventions ahead of the negative side effects. The insurer uses a registry with data on all of its members who have contracted the virus that combs for trends.

"I think like a lot of the country, COVID surprised us," he said. "We spent the first few months in reaction mode. What we’re really trying to think about as a company now is, 'Where do we get ahead of COVID?'"