Long Haul COVID Recovery Worse Than Cancer Rehab for Some: CDC

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Some people recovering from COVID-19 fare worse than current or previous cancer patients when referred to outpatient rehabilitation services, a new study from the CDC demonstrates.

People experiencing ongoing or “long-haul” symptoms after COVID-19 illness were more likely to report pain, challenges with physical activities, and “substantially worse health” compared with people needing rehabilitation because of cancer, lead author Jessica Rogers-Brown, PhD, and colleagues report.

The study was published online today in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

The CDC investigators compared self-reported physical and mental health symptoms, physical endurance, and use of health services between 1295 outpatients recovering from COVID-19 and a control group of another 2395 outpatients rehabilitating from a previous or current cancer diagnosis who had not experienced COVID-19.

Researchers used electronic health record data from January 2020 to March 2021 in the Select Medical network of outpatient clinics. The study included patients from 36 states and the District of Columbia.

Compared with people referred for cancer rehabilitation, those with COVID-19 symptoms lasting beyond 4 weeks were 2.3 times more likely to report pain, 1.8 times more likely to report worse physical health, and 1.6 times more likely to report difficulty with physical activities, an adjusted odds ratio analysis reveals.

The COVID-19 rehabilitation group also performed significantly worse on a 6-minute walk test, suggesting less physical endurance than people recovering from cancer (P < .001). They also used more rehabilitation services overall than the control group.

The researchers suggest services tailored to the unique physical and mental health rehabilitation needs of the post-COVID-19 patient population could be warranted.

The study does not suggest all people recovering with COVID-19 will fare worse than people recovering from cancer, the authors caution. They note, “These results should not be interpreted to mean that post–COVID-19 patients overall had poorer physical and mental health than patients with cancer.

“Instead, results indicate that post–COVID-19 patients specifically referred to a large physical rehabilitation network had poorer health measures than those referred for cancer, which indicates that some patients recovering from COVID-19 had substantial rehabilitation needs.”

MMWR. Published online July 8, 2021. Full text

Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter:  @MedReporter.

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