Long COVID hotbed? CDC jeered for non-peer-reviewed study of pricey university near White House

Agency's in-house journal says George Washington University has 36% long COVID rate due to symptoms including sadness, anxiety. Independent research finds significant association with preexisting psych disorders.

Published: February 2, 2023 4:52pm

Updated: February 2, 2023 11:31pm

Long COVID, the CDC claims, has stricken more than a third of George Washington University, which charges tuition north of $60,000 a year and sits blocks from the White House. The agency believes the shadowy phenomenon might be as high as 80% in the general population.

The study published in the agency's non-peer-reviewed Emerging Infectious Diseases last week is drawing howls from outside researchers for its curious methodology and divergence from independent estimates of so-called post-acute sequelae following COVID recovery.

The findings fit the CDC's recurring promotion of "long COVID" as an indefinite and widespread public health concern. The agency claimed that as of June 2022 3,500 Americans had died from long COVID, defined as post-infection symptoms lasting three or more months, and that 7.5% of adults reported long COVID that month.

Long COVID is also partially credited with a three-year trend of more than a million Americans calling out sick every month, The Guardian reported this week. The number jumped in 2022 despite COVID's diminishing toll, with a high of 3.6 million in January that year.

New York's largest workers' compensation insurer said nearly a third of claims through March 2022 involved long COVID, defined as 60 or more days unable to work or in treatment, though its report doesn't appear to include a full list of covered symptoms. About 7 in 10 had suffered at least six months, and 18% for at least a year, the vast majority of the latter under age 60.

Scientists also have financial incentives to study long COVID. The National Institutes of Health research funding database returns nearly 1,400 results for "long COVID."

Led by researchers in GWU's school of public health, the CDC study used the university's surveillance and testing program to identify 4,800 COVID cases — at least two-thirds PCR tests, the rest FDA-authorized antigen tests — from August 2020 through February 2022. (The CDC acknowledges PCRs can return false positives for up to 12 weeks.) 

The campus COVID-19 Support Team "completed case investigations within 24–48 hours of the person receiving a positive test result" for nearly 3,600 of those identified. Patients later received digital surveys with questions about long COVID, with a response rate of 32% and final sample of about 1,300 after exclusions. The study had no control group.

The researchers defined long COVID as more than one of 16 listed or "other" symptoms for more than 28 days after a 10-day isolation period. Listed symptoms include "feeling anxious" or "sad," "trouble sleeping" and "difficulty making decisions."

The overall long COVID rate was 36% and higher for respondents with underlying conditions (45%), not fully vaccinated (48%), female (41%) and former or current smokers (45%). Those who sought medical care (74%) or antibody treatment (72%) had the highest rates.

"Does a single doctor in the field believe that 36% of healthy young people get Long Covid?" an unidentified member of the research team behind a Danish long COVID study tweeted about the CDC study.

"Study included mostly PCR+ cases (sicker) and ignored asymptomatic cases," the researcher wrote. "As always, look at the denominator."

The Danish study in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Pediatrics found 0.8% of minors had long COVID compared to a control group but excluded symptoms that could be traced to "psychological sequelae of social restrictions."

"100% of authors don't understand the need for control arms. 100% of editors don't know what confounding means," University of California San Francisco epidemiologist Vinay Prasad tweeted, deeming the CDC study "0% useful."

Corresponding author Megan Landry didn't respond to Just the News queries about the criticism of the methodology. Neither did GWU or the CDC.

The peer-reviewed science is far from settled over the nature of long COVID, including whether SARS-CoV-2 actually causes it, and how unusual it is compared to non-COVID symptoms that linger for weeks or months.

The first female president of the Australian Medical Association made international waves last fall for parliamentary testimony that long COVID and mRNA vaccine injury may have "shared pathophysiology" attributable to the spike protein.

A National Institutes of Health study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last summer found no meaningful differences on a range of lab and cognitive tests between those with symptoms six weeks after COVID infection and those with no history of infection.

UCLA-led research published in JAMA Network Open in December found that a higher percentage of patients with negative COVID tests (53%) "reported persistently poor physical, mental, or social well-being" three months later compared to those testing positive (40%).

The most controversial study may be January's Scientific Reports paper by researchers in Japan's National Institute of Mental Health based on surveys of 6,000 people who recovered from COVID. They found more than half of those with preexisting psychiatric disorders reported "post-COVID 19 prevalence," a significant association, compared to just a third without those disorders.

Opposition to the idea that long COVID may be primarily mental is also behind a campaign against The New Republic for a December report on long COVID as a possible example of "functional neurologic disorder," a problem with brain function rather than physical damage, along with chronic Lyme disease and chronic fatigue syndrome.

More than 200 sufferers, physicians and activists are demanding corrections, "an extensive editor’s note" and apology "for the harmful misinformation" the 109-year-old magazine spread about long COVID, claiming the article "goes against the vast biomedical research consensus." 

A journalist who led the letter and identifies as disabled with long COVID reminded The New Republic it had retracted a 2019 article on Pete Buttigieg that caused offense. 

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