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5th November 2021

Long Covid and the young: “There’s hope but it’s not over yet”

By Emily Prescott

“Apologies if I’m out of breath when I speak to you,” Lizzie says when I catch her over the phone as she walks to a university lecture. For most students, the act of getting out of bed and actually attending a lecture seems like a small triumph but for Lizzie this is a pretty gigantic triumph. Just a year ago she couldn’t walk anywhere and certainly wasn’t in any state to be concentrating on her geography lectures.

Lizzie, 22, is thought to be one of more than 2 million adults in England to be impacted by long COVID. She caught the virus in July 2020 and wasn’t horrendously ill but as the weeks and months went on she found she wasn’t getting better. In fact, she was getting worse.

Though she was on track to get a first class degree from the University of Bristol, and had been a successful long-distance runner, both those things had suffered. “I did the course online from home but I couldn’t sit there for an hour and concentrate. I just realised it was pointless doing a year,” she recalls. She took the stressful decision to defer a year. While her friends pressed on with the degrees she spent a lot of time asleep.

There are an estimated 106,000 under-25s like Lizzie, whose education is suffering due to the long-term physical impact of the virus. People with long COVID, which is when symptoms persist for longer than 12 weeks, may have to endure extreme tiredness alongside problems with memory and concentration as well as insomnia. Such symptoms are hardly conducive to effective learning.

Thankfully, Lizzie was surrounded by a family and supervisors who supported her decision to focus on getting well. “I know people going through the same thing, and it’s just very frustrating. The longer it goes on, you just think, ‘Surely I must be better now.’ But you’re not and now I have this lingering fear that I’ll have another year of doing nothing. It was such a bizarre experience. Someone at my brother’s university has dropped out, I know another friend of a friend who has had to defer. It’s just exhausting,” she sighs.

Of course on top of the physical impact of long COVID, the pandemic has forced students out of classrooms and the impact of this alone has been stark. The Sutton Trust for example says that 5 per cent of teachers in state schools report that all their students have access to an adequate remote-learning device, compared to 54 per cent at private schools.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, recently told the Education Select Committee: “When we close schools, we close their lives.” Viner argues that the pandemic has caused a range of problems for students, from being isolated and lonely to suffering from sleep problems.

Finito World spoke to the head of a department at a sixth form colleague about how they deal with students suffering from the long term impacts of COVID, either physical or emotional. “I encourage them to do their work when they feel at their best and rest when they are not up to it,” she explains. “All lesson PowerPoints and notes are made available on Teams for students to access. I have also added four extra drop-in support classes for students to access. This is intended to help those who missed classes due to COVID or didn’t cope well with online learning,” she explains.

She says that although the situation is tough, students who fall behind will ultimately have the opportunity to get back on track. “We are also running catch-up sessions each week where first year material is being retaught to second year students. All students are welcomed to these sessions and we repeat them on three separate afternoons each week so that a student should be able to fit one in to their timetable.” The teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, says she wishes all schools and university had such catch-up measures in place. “We have about 140 second year students and about 20 are attending these,” she explains.

The schools and universities might be open now but the pandemic is not over and many young people are still enduring the long-term impact of COVID. “No matter how young or healthy you are, it can very, very easily be you who gets affected by the virus. I know it’s always in the news so you forget that. It seems separate,” Lizzie says, urging her fellow students to stay safe and continue using measures to protect themselves from the virus.

Although she started to feel a bit better in February she says she wants to raise awareness about long COVID clinics, which have helped her. “At the beginning GPs didn’t know what to do with me or where to put me but as long COVID clinics have started popping up we need to raise awareness of them. It’d be good if teachers and lecturers knew more about them so they can point pupils in the right direction, if necessary,” Lizzie explains.

After a year out, Lizzie has made a good albeit not full recovery and she hopes that as the pandemic goes on more people will have access to the COVID recovery clinics.

Thankfully, the NHS has set up a specialist young people’s COVID clinic. “I just hope teachers and doctors know about it so they can point people even younger than me in the right direction,” Lizzie says.

The 15 new hubs will draw together experts on common symptoms who can directly treat young people and advise people caring for them and refer them into other specialist services and clinics.

“The boost to dedicated services for young people is part of a package of investment in a range of measures to help young people and adults with long COVID, including a major focus on specialist treatment and rehab services,” an NHS spokesperson explains.

It is estimated that 340,000 people may need support for the condition including 68,000 who will need rehab or other specialist treatment. While the majority of children and young people are not severely affected by COVID, ONS data has shown that 7.4 per cent of children aged 2-11 and 8.2 per cent of those aged 12-16 report continued symptoms. Lizzie adds: “There’s hope. But it’s not over yet.”

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