WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden issued a presidential memorandum Tuesday to accelerate research efforts by the federal government into the causes and treatment of long Covid, a condition doctors say remains a medical mystery as it affects millions of Americans more than two years into the pandemic.
Biden’s memorandum will direct Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to coordinate a new research effort across the federal government focused on prevention, diagnosis, treatment and support for those experiencing prolonged Covid symptoms, as well as mental health and substance abuse issues related to the pandemic and Covid-related losses, the White House said.
"Long Covid is real and there is still so much we don’t know about it," Becerra told reporters Tuesday. "Millions of Americans may be struggling with lingering health effects, ranging from things that are easier to notice like trouble breathing or irregular heartbeats to less apparent but potentially serious conditions related to the brain or mental health."
Researchers say that as many as 23 million Americans continue to suffer from long Covid symptoms, which include chronic pain, persistent dizziness and memory loss. Scientists say it remains a mystery why some people’s symptoms go away in a matter of days while others, even those with mild cases, are plagued by the disease for months or years.
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As part of its efforts, the White House said in a statement that Biden will push to accelerate a $1.5 billion study started last year by the National Institutes of Health to follow 40,000 individuals with and without long Covid to try to better understand the condition. Biden also proposed spending an additional $25 million on a $50 million study started last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to understand the risk factors, mechanisms of action and characteristics of long Covid, the White House said.
Biden proposed spending $20 million to investigate how health care systems can better provide care to patients with long Covid and expand long Covid clinics run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House said. In addition, the administration will seek to raise awareness of long Covid as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The administration will also look for additional ways to improve insurance coverage for those with long Covid in addition to changes made over the past year to improve coverage for those with Medicaid and Medicare.
An NBC News investigation last month found gaps in the social safety net intended to help those with long Covid, including difficulty accessing benefits from unemployment insurance and long-term disability insurance for many Americans with the condition, who may be too sick to work but not ready to depart the workforce altogether.
While the government looks to address the long-term effects of the virus, officials said they were also monitoring whether the country will soon see an uptick in hospitalizations with a new, more contagious variant now the dominant strain in the U.S.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who spoke at the same Covid briefing with Becerra, said there are a "handful" of counties seeing an increase in signs of severe disease.
Concerns about another uptick in cases comes as the Biden administration continues to put pressure on Congress for additional Covid relief funding.
Top negotiators announced a bipartisan deal Monday on $10 billion in coronavirus aid, far short of the $22.5 billion the White House had been seeking.
White House Covid response coordinator Jeffrey Zients called it "a real disappointment" that the new agreement doesn't include funding for U.S. efforts to fight the virus overseas.
"The bill is a start, it should pass immediately. But it’s exactly that, just the start," he told reporters. "Congress must keep working to immediately provide additional funding for our remaining domestic needs so that we’re prepared for whatever comes and importantly, to act with urgency to fund our global Covid-19 response" said Zients.
Still, the U.S. plans to donate "tens of millions" of doses of pediatric Covid vaccines to lower income countries using existing resources, Zients said, adding that this would likely be his last Covid briefing. Dr. Ashish Jha is expected to take over as the new White House Covid-19 response coordinator this month.