Long Covid: What support is available in Austria?
Some people have been left with lasting impacts from the pandemic in the form of Long Covid. Here’s how to access treatment and support in Austria.
For most people, it’s starting to feel like we are past the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But for others that have been left with Long Covid, the pandemic is still very much present in their daily lives.
We took a closer look into what Long Covid actually is, the situation in Austria and the treatments available for those diagnosed with the condition.
What is Long Covid?
Long Covid is an illness that persists for more than 12 weeks after an initial Covid-19 infection. The Long Covid Europe group describes it as “a highly debilitating, multi-system condition with fluctuating symptoms.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that at least 17 million people in Europe have experienced Long Covid since 2020, with females twice as likely to be diagnosed. The WHO is now urging governments to take the condition seriously by investing in research and rehabilitation.
Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: “Millions of people in our region, straddling Europe and central Asia, are suffering debilitating symptoms many months after their initial COVID-19 infection.
“They cannot continue to suffer in silence. Governments and health partners must collaborate to find solutions based on research and evidence.”
What are the symptoms of Long Covid?
Extreme fatigue is the most common symptom of Long Covid, but others include breathlessness and cognitive dysfunction. For many people, the symptoms come and go in waves with some suffering ‘relapses’ after a spell of feeling better.
Vienna-based neurologist Michael Stingl told The Local: “The biggest problem is in young people that don’t have any pre-existing medical conditions and you don’t find any specific issues with tests and check ups.
“For those people, the main symptom is post exhaustion malaise [known as PEM] and the symptoms often get worse if they over-exert themselves.”
Clare Woolner lives in St. Johann in Tyrol but is originally from Manchester in the UK. She caught Covid during Christmas 2021 and was diagnosed with Long Covid in May 2022.
Clare told The Local: “I was diagnosed in early May 2022 after visiting a residential post-Covid clinic. It took almost three months after symptoms started for me to get a diagnosis. The first doctor I saw said I probably had depression, which I knew I didn't.
“The symptoms of Long Covid are very wide ranging and it varies from person to person but my main symptom is fatigue. A bone-deep, debilitating fatigue that is difficult to describe and I would struggle to imagine had I not felt it.
“I also had difficulty concentrating, focusing and started to forget words – the 'brain fog' that many people describe.”
How many people in Austria have Long Covid?
There is currently no data collection in Austria on how many people have Long Covid. But in April it was reported that around 46,000 cases of sick leave due to Long Covid were reported to the Austrian Health Insurance Fund (ÖGK).
Speaking about the lack of data on Long Covid in Austria, neurologist Stingl said: “Long Covid is not high up on the list of priorities – especially regarding the effects on the labour market.
“We are having problems in Austria with not being able to fill job vacancies but we’re not thinking that Long Covid could be the problem. I am frustrated like many other people that we don’t have data because it affects planning regarding services.
“If we knew how many people were affected then we could scale medical services, but it hasn’t happened so far.”
Meanwhile, a recent report on behalf of the Ministry of Health into Long Covid in Austria called for “a constant development process” due to the lack of information on the epidemiology, symptoms and duration of the disease.
What treatments and support are available in Austria?
If a doctor (Hausarzt) suspects someone has Long Covid, the next step is usually a referral to specialists (such as lung and neurology) for further tests, or a short stay at a residential post-Covid clinic.
In some cases, patients are offered a course of vitamin transfusions, although this is often not covered by social insurance and has to be paid for privately – a route that Clare from Manchester chose to go down.
Clare said: “After my symptoms persisted for a few months, I started exploring private treatment options and I was referred to a neurologist for an IV infusion therapy which worked brilliantly.
“It didn't seem to be a well-known treatment option by most doctors though. I really did have to advocate for myself and do some of my own research.”
When asked about IV infusion therapy for treating Long Covid, Stingl said he doesn't usually recommend it, but added: "In some patients it helps, but it's not a regular therapy."
In Austria, it is also possible to be prescribed a stay at a rehabilitation clinic, which includes physical and psychological therapies, as well as therapeutic treatments like massage.
Sick leave is available for people with Covid-19 (with a doctor’s note) and some people have found it useful to negotiate a reduced number of working hours with their employer. However, in most cases, this results in a reduced salary.
Speaking about the treatment for Long Covid in Austria, Clare said: “I am satisfied with the care I have received in Austria, apart from the GP who said I was depressed. But I understand that it's a difficult illness for doctors to manage or treat because it's so new, so nobody really knows what they're doing.
“Of course, it has been frustrating at times, but I don't think I could have asked for much more from the doctors I've seen.”
Neurologist Stingl said the best therapy for Long Covid is pacing, which is a method of controlling how much energy is used during activities. In most cases, the patient will at least stabilise and many recover from the illness through this approach.
Stingl said: “The earlier people start with pacing, the better the results usually are.”
Medication is also being used to treat some people, such as antihistamines, which Stingl said can help some patients, especially those dealing with intolerances.
What to do if you suspect you have Long Covid
If you had a Covid-19 infection and are still experiencing symptoms after three months – like exhaustion and a fast heartbeat when doing daily activities – then you should visit a doctor.
Many Long Covid patients report that it is a struggle to get their condition diagnosed. Doctors often rule out other causes first, such as mental health issues like depression and anxiety, which is what Clare initially experienced. So persistence can be key when trying to get a diagnosis.
Organisations like Long Covid Europe and the WHO are also pushing for increased awareness of the illness within the medical community and further research (and funding) into the causes of Long Covid.
Additionally, a recent study in the UK highlighted the impact of Long Covid on both individuals and the economy as many people of working age are suffering with the condition. It is estimated that 80,000 people in the UK have left employment due to Long Covid.
But when it comes to Austria, neurologist Stingl is doubtful that Long Covid will be taken seriously until it starts to impact the economy or the medical system.
Stingl said: “Usually if people get sick, politicians don’t care. They only start to look more closely if it costs them something, if the medical system is under strain or there are people missing from the labour force.
“Politicians in the UK and the US are talking about the health impacts on the people but the main reason is that it has an economic impact. When that is realised in Austria, then the politics will change.”