Washington Post overstates prevalence of long Covid

18 February 2022
What was claimed

At least 50% of people who survive Covid-19 have debilitating health issues in the months afterwards.

Our verdict

This is far too high. There are various estimates for the prevalence of long Covid. The Office for National Statistics estimated that 7.5% of people infected with Covid-19 self-reported having long Covid three months after infection which limited their daily activities.

“At least 50% of people who survive Covid have debilitating health issues in the months afterwards”

A TikTok from the Washington Post claims that at least half of people who survive Covid-19  have debilitating health issues in the months following their infection.

This is far too high. 

The source for the claim is unclear and we have asked the Washington Post for clarification, but had not received a response at the time of publication. 

However, the newspaper published an article in November 2021 making a similar claim that “at least 50 percent of people who survive covid-19 experience a variety of physical and psychological health issues for six months or more after their initial recovery”. 

It also repeated the claim made in this article on its Facebook page on 16 February 2022.

In this case, the 50% figure was sourced to an academic review. But this review can’t tell us how common lingering symptoms are in general, because it looked mostly at the symptoms of people who had been more seriously ill. Altogether, 79% of the Covid-19 survivors observed in the study had been hospitalised with Covid-19.

The hospitalisation rate of Covid is far below 79%. For example during the first two waves of Covid, prior to vaccines becoming available, Imperial College London estimated the hospitalisation rate in England was 3.5% (though the rate will vary between countries and time periods). Therefore the experience of long Covid among the people covered in the review would not be representative of the experience of long Covid among the population at large. 

The review also didn’t determine whether the post-Covid symptoms observed were “debilitating”. 

A better figure

In September 2021 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that between 3% and 11.7% of people infected with Covid had remaining symptoms 12 weeks after infection.

The range of estimates reflected different ways of measuring long Covid. Among those infected: 

  • 3% experienced any of 12 common symptoms for a continuous period of at least 12 weeks from infection
  • 5% reported any of 12 common symptoms at any point in time 12 to 16 weeks after infection
  • 11.7% self-reported having long Covid, and 7.5% reported having long Covid which limited their daily activities 

All of these figures increased if only people who had an initially symptomatic case of Covid were included, and asymptomatic cases were excluded.

The ONS said: “It is not possible to say with certainty whether symptoms reported after a positive test for coronavirus were caused by COVID-19 or something else”.

With all the symptom-based estimates, it should be noted that there was a background level of symptoms among people who hadn’t been infected with Covid. For example, while 5% of people infected with Covid reported any of 12 common symptoms at any point in time, 12 to 16 weeks after infection, 3.4% of a control group who hadn’t been infected also reported one of these symptoms during an equivalent time period. 

The ONS also measured the number of people who reported symptoms or long Covid from four weeks after infection, in line with the clinical definition of “ongoing symptomatic Covid-19”.

Using this time period, the ONS data estimates 9.4% to 14.1% of people infected with Covid-19 experience symptoms or self-report having long Covid from four weeks after infection.

Image courtesy of Daniel X O’Neil

We took a stand for good information.

After we published this fact check the Washington Post posted an updated version of its TikTok video with a correction note.

The Washington Post has not amended its article published in November.

Don’t put up with bad information.

Add your name and join the fight for higher standards. We’ll send our latest fact checks every week to your inbox.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.