A Hong Kong university study has found that recovered adult Covid-19 patients of any age could suffer from long Covid, with the condition more common in women.

The Department of Rehabilitation Sciences in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) released their initial findings on long Covid among recovered Covid-19 patients at a press briefing on Wednesday morning. They found that over 40 per cent of participants were suffering from symptoms of the condition six to 12 months after contracting Covid-19.

Caritas Medical Centre in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong during the fifth-wave Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Citing the World Health Organisation’s clinical definition, Amy Fu, the associate head of the department that led the research, told reporters that symptoms of long Covid included fatigue, shortness in breath and cognitive disorders. “There is no answer yet” on whether the symptoms would wane naturally or how long they would last, Fu said.

“Most recovered Covid-19 patients think they are [fully] cured and overlook their feeling of weariness, or believe that their fatigue will get better over time.” Fu said in a statement about the research.

Fu’s team recruited 118 people from October 2020 to January 2022 as research subjects, 101 of whom joined the study within six months of infection. The PolyU team studied 46 of them until 12 months post-infection. Another 17 were recruited a year after their initial infection, Fu said.

Aged between 23 and 88, most of the participants were referred from five local hospitals.

Amy Fu (left) and Arnold Wong from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences. Photo: Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The study revealed that 41.8 per cent of recovered patients had long Covid symptoms within six months after infection, while the figure was 42.6 per cent among those who had contracted the disease 12 months earlier.

Fu said the results suggested that long Covid symptoms “last for quite a long time indeed,” as most of their subjects who suffered from fatigue six months after infection would still be affected 12 months later. Meanwhile, for 20 per cent of their research subjects, the symptoms only emerged one year after infection.

The research also found that the situation was similar irrespective of their age, but women were more prone to developing symptoms than men.

Responding to a question from HKFP, Fu said they “can’t say” whether their findings would suggest that there would be a significant number of long Covid patients in Hong Kong following the fifth wave, as the study did not cover the now prevalent Omicron strain.

“We need more data to justify [the claim],” Fu said, adding that the team was currently working on another study of Omicron patients.

As of Tuesday, Hong Kong has reported 1,075,910 total Covid-19 cases and 6,364 deaths, most of which were caused by the city’s fifth-wave outbreak led by the Omicron variant.

Helpful exercise

The study also found that the level of fatigue was related to the patient’s lung function and leg strength, Fu said. Based on this finding, the research team designed a six-week training programme to assist in the rehabilitation of long Covid sufferers.

Arnold Wong, an associate professor at the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, said 24 participants aged between 27 to 80 had successfully completed the scheme, which required them to attend two hour-long aerobic exercise classes and do three thirty-minute sessions of muscle strengthening workouts at home each week.

Wong said the preliminary results revealed that three out of four participants recovered fully after completing the six-week course. Wong added that it suggested that exercise of suitable intensity and frequency could help restore Covid-19 patients’ physical strength.

When HKFP asked about recommendations for elderly or bedridden patients who may not be able to work out at home, Wong said these patients could still do exercise “as long as they can move.”

He said for instance, bedridden patients could exercise with a resistance band or perform foot exercises, adding that caregivers could assist with their physical activities as well.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.