‘Significant health challenges’:Inquiry to probe long COVID’s impact on the nation

A federal parliamentary inquiry will investigate the impact of long COVID and repeat coronavirus infections on the nation after Treasury revealed tens of thousands of workers a day were calling in sick during the winter peak.

The inquiry by the House of Representatives health committee,chaired by Labor MP for Macarthur and south-west Sydney paediatrician Dr Mike Freelander,will examine the health,social,educational and economic impacts of COVID-19.

Dr Mike Freelander will chair the inquiry into long COVID.

Dr Mike Freelander will chair the inquiry into long COVID.Dominic Lorrimer

“The committee recognises that both long COVID and repeated COVID infections are emerging as significant health challenges for Australia,” Freelander said.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers said ahead of last week’s jobs and skills summit that long COVID was having an ongoing impact on the economy through labour shortages along with “concentrated disadvantage and long-term unemployment”.

Lindsay MP Melissa McIntosh has shared her personal experience of long COVID.

Lindsay MP Melissa McIntosh has shared her personal experience of long COVID.Dominic Lorrimer

Treasury data released last month showed long COVID cost the nation’s economy 3 million working days in the first half of this year. About 31,000 Australian workers a day called in sick in June because of the condition,it showed.

Liberal MP for Lindsay Melissa McIntosh,the health committee’s deputy chair,shared her personal experience with long COVID while calling for people who had suffered the condition to share their stories with the inquiry.

“I’ve never had any respiratory issues in my life but since having COVID I do have some of that breathlessness,” she said. “And I did experience some of the feelings of having a foggy head after COVID and feeling quite run down.”

The western Sydney MP said the inquiry would examine the impacts of the condition on economic productivity.

“We’re hearing so much anecdotal reporting when it comes to long COVID,” she said. “We want to collect the evidence[and] speak to people who have experienced[it].”

Freelander said politicians had a limited understanding of long COVID and the inquiry’s findings could be used to inform public policy recommendations.

Asked if this could lead to a revival of public health requirements such as mask mandates,he said while restrictions were “not really in our mandate”,the committee would “be interested to hear from some of our infectious disease specialists about how we can best manage this”.

Australian Medical Association president Professor Steve Robson has pointed to “a total tsunami of long COVID in the community” to argue against nationalcabinet’s decision last week to reduce mandatory isolation from seven to five days,starting this Friday.

Freelander said he would not “second guess” whether national cabinet’s decision was backed by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee,whose advice the federal government has refused to release.

“The national cabinet has made this decision,not just the prime minister,” Freelander said,adding Albanese,state and territory leaders had weighed up “a variety of opinions” and taken health advice “strongly into account”.

Government study shows about 12 per cent of workers are sick with COVID-19.

As well as patient experiences of long COVID and repeat infections,the long COVID inquiry’s terms of reference cover the experience of healthcare providers;research into potential and known effects,causes,risk factors,prevalence,management and treatment;and best practice responses to prevention,diagnosis and treatment.

Of the nine MPs on the cross-party committee,four are doctors:Freelander,independent Kooyong MP Dr Monique Ryan,Higgins Labor MP Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah and Robertson Labor MP Dr Gordon Reid.

Asked if he would be prepared to support public health measures to prevent long and/or repeated COVID if recommended by the inquiry,Health Minister Mark Butler said:“I look forward to the committee’s inquiry so we can better understand this condition.”

Australia does not track long COVID numbers,but its prevalence before widespread vaccination – which reduces the risk – was an estimated 10 to 30 per cent.

The World Health Organisationdefines long COVID as occurring in people with “a history of probable or confirmed SARS CoV-2 infection”,usually within three months and lasting at least two months,with no other explanation.

Sufferers describe exhaustion that can hit suddenly or linger all day,while about 200 other symptoms have been linked to the condition,including persistent breathlessness,confusion,hallucinations,heart palpitations,seizures and sexual dysfunction.

The inquiry will be accepting submissions until November 18.

With Mary Ward

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news,views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up toour weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

Dana Daniel is a federal health reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Canberra.

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