As all of us know, the COVID-19 pandemic was the worst public health crisis in more than a century. Since the first cases four years ago, well more than 100 million Americans have gotten the virus, more than 6.7 million Americans have been hospitalized and more than 1 million Americans have died.
More Americans have died from COVID-19 than were killed during World War II.
The pandemic created the most painful economic downturn since the Great Depression, disrupted the education of our young people and increased isolation, anxiety and mental illness.
I am more than aware that many Americans are tired of hearing about COVID-19 and would like to sweep it under the rug. Unfortunately, the virus is not done with us.
It’s true that cases, deaths and hospitalizations are substantially lower than they were during the height of the pandemic. But at least 1,000 Americans still die from COVID-19 every week.
And for too many – even after they no longer test positive – the nightmare of the coronavirus has not ended. There is a hidden public health crisis in America that we can no longer ignore. And that is the crisis of long COVID-19.
Millions are suffering from long COVID. We don’t know why.
In America today, about 16 million people throughout our country have long COVID-19. It affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds. And we don’t know why.
Long COVID-19 can include more than 200 symptoms – including serious cognitive impairment − that might continue for weeks, months or even years after the initial infection.
People with long COVID-19 experience a variety of chronic symptoms, from extreme fatigue, trouble sleeping, migraines and “brain fog” to more severe cardiovascular and neurological challenges. These symptoms are not minor inconveniences. They are debilitating conditions that affect the ability of people to work, care for their families and live full lives.
What is deeply concerning to me is that long COVID-19 can affect anyone who has had the disease, from those who experienced mild symptoms to those who were severely ill. Furthermore, although you may not have long COVID-19 after your first infection, each reinfection can increase the risk of developing it. This escalating danger, particularly for those who have suffered repeated infections, poses a severe threat to public health that demands our immediate and focused attention.
Let’s be clear. The impact of long COVID-19 is not just a health issue. It’s an economic one as well. It’s estimated that as many as 4 million Americans are out of work due to long COVID-19. The annual cost of those lost wages alone is about $170 billion a year.
In my view, we must do everything in our power to improve the diagnosis and treatment of long COVID-19.
Our health care system is failing COVID patients
First, we must educate medical professionals on how to adequately diagnose long COVID-19, better understand the risks associated with it and identify potential therapeutic options. Far too many patients have struggled to get their symptoms taken seriously and far too many medical professionals have either dismissed or misdiagnosed their serious health problems.
This crisis is made even worse by the fact that long COVID-19 patients often require multiple specialists to treat their complex symptoms. The shortage of health care providers – from primary care to mental health providers – means that too many Americans are unable to access affordable, high-quality care when they need it. As a result, patients are forced to navigate a dysfunctional health care system that is too confusing and too expensive, with no real answers.
This should not be happening in the United States of America.
That is one of the reasons why I have been fighting to pass bipartisan legislation to substantially expand access to primary care in America and significantly expand the number of doctors, nurses and mental health professionals in our country.
Second, we must sustain our investment into long COVID-19 research. We need to understand why some people get it and others do not.
We must also be aggressive in pursuing potential treatments and cures. We can no longer tolerate patients trying to address their symptoms without any guidance on effective therapies from our nation’s public health professionals.
And, critically, as treatments are developed, patients must be able to afford them.
Paxlovid costs are out of control. Health isn’t a luxury.
In my view, Pfizer should not be allowed to charge nearly $1,400 for a five-day supply of Paxlovid (which is being tested as a potential treatment for long COVID-19) when it costs just $13 to manufacture. No American who needs Paxlovid should go without because they cannot afford it.
Third, we need to address the broader societal and economic issues not just of long COVID-19 but of other chronic illnesses, as well.
Because of the pandemic, Americans all across the political spectrum now understand: Health care should not be a privilege tied to employment or income. When a worker loses a job they should never, under any circumstance, lose their health care. It is a system designed only to make huge profits for the insurance industry and drug companies, while ignoring the needs of ordinary Americans.
The time is long overdue to join every major country on earth and guarantee health care as a fundamental human right for all, not a privilege for the wealthy few.
And we cannot stop there. The United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Yet we are the only major country on earth that does not guarantee paid sick days or paid family and medical leave to all people. Ending this international embarrassment won’t just improve the lives of people suffering from long COVID-19 and their family members, it will improve our entire society.
Finally, we need to do a much better job educating the American people about the benefits of keeping up-to-date on vaccines, wearing masks when appropriate and taking rapid tests for those who are feeling sick. The best way to avoid getting long COVID-19 is to prevent people from getting the disease in the first place.
Pandemic nightmare could make universal health care a reality
The fight against long COVID-19 is not just a medical challenge. It is a moral one. While we have learned much about the disease and its aftermath, the truth is there’s still a great deal we don’t know about long COVID-19. But here’s something we do know: Long COVID-19 is a very serious illness that can have devastating consequences for those who contract it. Far too many people who were previously healthy, leading active and productive lives, have found themselves bedridden and grappling with debilitating symptoms as a result.
If there is any silver lining in the unprecedented period of this global pandemic, it is that we have a new opportunity to reassess the foundational institutions of American society and determine how we go forward into a better future.
As millions of Americans deal with the ramifications of long COVID-19, how sad it would be if we learned nothing from all that we have done wrong? Do we really want to continue this expensive and cruel system that ties health care to our jobs? Or do we need a simple, comprehensive and cost-effective system that understands that health care is a human right for all of our people – employed or unemployed, young or old, rich or poor?
Do we really want to continue the complicated, wasteful and bureaucratic system in which virtually every visit to a doctor or hospital requires filling out endless forms in order to determine how much of our deductible we have paid, or whether we got sick in the appropriate “network”? Or do we want a simple system in which we go to any doctor we choose and never see a bill, because the system is publicly funded?
Do we want to continue to force sick people to go to work because they can’t afford to take time off without pay? Or do we want to join every other major country on earth and guarantee paid sick leave to workers?
As the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, I will be doing everything I can to address this crisis with the sense of urgency that it demands. We cannot turn our backs on the millions of Americans who continue to struggle with long COVID-19 − or the millions more who may contract it in the future. The time to act is now.