St. Louis, MO—COVID-19 vaccines do not just help recipients avoid contracting the virus and suffering a serious case if they do. Immunization also reduces the risk of death by 34% and the chances of getting "long COVID" by 15%, compared with persons who are unvaccinated.

That finding is according to a new study of more than 13 million U.S. veterans. Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System pointed out that vaccination appears to be most protective against the most dangerous manifestations of "long COVID," namely, lung and blood-clotting disorders. These manifestations declined about 49% and 56%, respectively, among individuals who were vaccinated, according to the authors.

The article in Nature Medicine emphasized, however, that even vaccinated people with mild breakthrough COVID-19 infections can experience symptoms—sometimes serious and long-lasting—that affect the heart, brain, lungs, and other parts of the body.

"Vaccinations remain critically important in the fight against COVID-19," stated first author Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University. "Vaccinations reduce the risk of hospitalization and dying from COVID-19. But vaccines seem to only provide modest protection against long COVID. People recovering from breakthrough COVID-19 infection should continue to monitor their health and see a health-care provider if lingering symptoms make it difficult to carry out daily activities."

Patients were classified as fully vaccinated if they had received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine. Information about boosters was unavailable when the research was conducted.

"Now that we understand that COVID-19 can have lingering health consequences even among the vaccinated, we need to move toward developing mitigation strategies that can be implemented for the longer term since it does not appear that COVID-19 is going away any time soon," stated Dr. Al-Aly, who is also the chief of research and development at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System. "We need to urgently develop and deploy additional layers of protection that could be sustainably implemented to reduce the risk of long COVID."

Researchers suggested that might include other types of vaccines that are more convenient, potent, or focused on minimizing the risks of long COVID.

"Getting COVID-19, even among vaccinated people, seems almost unavoidable nowadays," Dr. Al-Aly stated in a press release, noting that 8% to 12% of vaccinated persons with breakthrough infections may develop long COVID, and adding, "Our current approach will likely leave a large number of people with chronic and potentially disabling conditions that have no treatments. This will not only affect people's health, but their ability to work, life expectancy, economic productivity and societal well-being. We need to have a candid national conversation about the consequences of our current approach."

For the study, researchers analyzed the deidentified medical records of more than 13 million veterans from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records. The focus was on 113,474 unvaccinated COVID-19 patients and 33,940 vaccinated patients who had experienced COVID-19 breakthrough infections from January 1, 2021, through October 31, 2021.

Although the patients with COVID-19 were mostly older white men, researchers also analyzed data that included more than 1.3 million women and adults of all ages and races.

The study also reports that other symptoms associated with long COVID included disorders involving the kidneys, blood clotting, mental health, metabolism, and the gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal systems.

Long COVID risks were considerably greater (17%) among vaccinated, immunocompromised patients with breakthrough infections compared with previously healthy, vaccinated patients who experienced breakthrough infections, according to the researchers.

"The constellation of findings shows that the burden of death and disease experienced by people with breakthrough COVID-19 infections is not trivial," Dr. Al-Aly stated.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.