New year’s thoughts on COVID-19 and Sjogren’s

Happy 2022 readers, and I hope you are doing well. It has been a while since my last update, but I am still here and relatively stable. Like many, I was hoping that vaccinations would allow a return to normalcy from our nearly 2 year pandemic, but with the advent of Omicron, it appears that the pandemic is not over yet. That said, I thought it would be a good time to consider what COVID means for Sjogren’s patients.

Those of us with chronic illnesses have had to endure many of the same challenges as others around the world: lockdowns, job and economic disruptions, supply chain issues, mental stress, and potentially the acute and long-term physical issues that come with getting a COVID infection. In addition, we faced some unique issues: a pointless run on hydroxychloroquine that limited supplies, overloaded medical facilities that made it hard to schedule our regular appointments, and a medical research system that shifted much of its resources towards COVID-19 and away from chronic illnesses.

As a result, there has been little research to discuss over the past year. There have, however, been a couple of positive outcomes from the pandemic for Sjogren’s patients. The first is that remote work is now mainstream, and it is easier than ever to find a job that allows one the flexibility of working from home. For those with chronic conditions that limit mobility and make commuting and moving around a workspace challenging but can still perform tasks on a computer, this opens up new potential to continue earning income.

The other positive outcome is tied with the very negative long COVID. One study found that 54% of COVID patients experience at least one symptom 6 months after infection, including 37.5% with fatigue and muscle weakness 23.8% with difficulty concentrating, and 44% with generalized functional impairments. For many Sjogren’s patients, those symptoms will sound familiar. Indeed, another study found that 50% of COVID patients had some type of autoantibodies in their bloodstream compared to 15% of controls. Interestingly, “in some people, the levels of autoantibodies were very high, close to the levels seen in autoimmune diseases.” Many Sjogren’s patients, including me, believe that our conditions have a viral or bacterial onset. Lyme disease patients sometimes develop similar chronic conditions as well.

While my heart goes out to any who have developed long COVID, the silver lining is that it is bringing increasing scrutiny to the causes of autoimmunity. Already some medical researchers are calling for resources to explore the link between COVID-19 and autoimmune conditions:

Experts expect that more than 15 million people will experience “long COVID,” a condition that is poised to be the next national health disaster, wrote the authors of a perspective paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Understanding this public health threat, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investing $470 million in researching the long-term effects of COVID-19. Research and academic institutions, like Johns Hopkins University, have also initiated long-COVID studies to understand the scale and severity of individuals experiencing long-term symptoms of COVID-19.

As millions of previously healthy individuals, particularly those with connections and wealth, succumb to long COVID, we will hopefully see significant resources shifted towards research to understand and treat the condition. Considering the evidence we already have that ties long COVID and autoimmunity together, it stands to reason that Sjogren’s patients could benefit considerably from such research.

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