White House: A Long COVID 'National Research Action Plan' Is Coming

Xavier Becerra speaking at an event

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A new White House initiative will rely on multiple departments to research how to define, predict, diagnose, and treat long COVID.
  • Long COVID involves persistent symptoms that continue or emerge in the months after an acute COVID-19 infection.
  • While researchers across the world have been studying long COVID since 2020, federal support is crucial to enhancing those efforts.

President Biden announced a plan on April 5 to address the long-term effects of COVID-19, also known as long COVID. The effort will be led by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, who will work with other government agencies on research and support for patients. 

Becerra’s first report on long COVID, called the National Research Action Plan, is due in four months.

Regardless of age, race, ethnicity, medical history, or initial experience with COVID-19, there’s no telling who will develop long COVID and who won’t. Despite all the progress researchers have made over the last two years on COVID vaccines and treatments, until now, federal resources haven’t been focused on understanding long COVID.

What Is Long COVID?

While most people with COVID-19 get better within weeks of illness, some people experience a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems after the acute phase of their illness. This is long COVID.

Symptoms don’t need to be debilitating or last for an exact number of days in order to be considered long COVID. But the World Health Organization defines long COVID as a condition that occurs about three months from the onset of COVID-19 symptoms and lasts for at least two months.

“Long COVID is real, and there is still so much we don’t know about it,” Becerra said during a reporter’s briefing to announce the initiative. “Millions of Americans may be struggling with lingering health effects, ranging from things that are easier to notice, like trouble breathing or irregular heartbeat, to less apparent but potentially serious conditions related to the brain or mental health.”

According to the Government Accountability Office, an estimated 7.7 million to 23 million people are dealing with long COVID-19 in the United States.

“We see you, we are focused on you, and we’re committed to advancing our nation's capacity to understand and treat your conditions,” Becerra said.

What the Biden Administration Plans to Do

What does a “government-wide response to the long-term effect of COVID-19” look like? According to Biden’s memorandum on Tuesday, it will involve coordination from the private and public sectors. Secretary Becerra will need to gather information from health experts, organizations, and individuals directly impacted by long COVID.

That information will be used to create a report detailing the types of federal services necessary to support people with long COVID and their families, as well as those dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues stemming from the pandemic.

From there, federal agencies and researchers will work together to further efforts regarding diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and services for people with long COVID. This includes creating a better definition from the condition, as well as determining exactly how many people have it.

How Else Will the Government Help Long COVID?

  • Multilingual information and support will be added to call centers run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Administration for Community Living to answer questions about long COVID.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will fund research on the mental health consequences of long COVID and help provide resources for people living with the condition.
  • The Department of Justice will release guidance on whether people with long COVID may be eligible for help under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality will help launch more centers of excellence on long COVID-19 and update clinical guidance for better treatments. (This will require that Congress authorize more funding for COVID-19 efforts, which it has not yet done.)

“Obviously, this initiative is only really the first step in a much longer process, Matthew Ashley, MD, JD, chief medical officer of the Centre for Neuro Skills, a national brain injury rehabilitation practice which has been treating patients with long COVID, told Verywell. “The very difficult work of studying long COVID patients and conducting rigorous scientific inquiries has already begun, but is going to require a lot more effort. This will mean continued support and funding for those efforts, along with logistical support for agencies who are carrying out those studies.”

Still, Ashley said it’s a good place for the White House to start.

“These types of broadly-supportive measures will be critical in helping the scientific community develop not only an understanding of the illness, its pathophysiology, and its harmful effects, but also pave the way for more effective treatment and management,” he said. “We are still just scratching the surface of long COVID in many respects. At this point, we have somewhat of a phenotype—meaning we know that different people experience some version of a constellation of various symptoms. But we still need a lot more scientific work to characterize long COVID, to identify why some individuals seem to suffer from it while others do not, and to identify potential subtypes.”

Spreading the Word About Long COVID

Despite how pernicious long COVID is, experts don’t think the public has a solid grasp of how to identify it.

“Since it is not as dramatic as death and often manifests several months after the acute infection, there has not been adequate coverage in the press,” Matthew Bartels, MD, MPH, professor and chairman, department of rehabilitation medicine at Montefiore Health System in New York City, told Verywell. “Education in public health and media would help, as well as getting awareness of [the White House] initiative out. Many individuals suffering with long COVID right now are not aware they have it!”

Matthew Bartels, MD, MPH

If even only 10% of individuals infected with COVID develop long COVID symptoms—and it may very well be much higher than this—then over 8 million people are suffering with long COVID now.

— Matthew Bartels, MD, MPH

Bartels said part of the problem is that right now, doctors don’t know how to screen for the condition.

“There are two reasons to screen: One is to help to get an estimation of the true incidence of these symptoms of COVID, the second is to treat the condition,” Bartels said. “Many patients will be in denial, or brush the symptoms aside, and it helps to focus on the issues they may have.” 

Bartels’s focus is cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, meaning a large percentage of his patients are COVID survivors. 

“When I see these patients or anyone who has a history of COVID, I do a quick run-through to see if they have any of the constellation of long COVID symptoms, including cognitive issues, fatigue, GI issues, neurological issues, loss of smell or taste, or any depression or anxiety. If possible, I try to address them, or make the appropriate referrals.”

According to Bartels, we’ve probably never seen a public health issue at the same scale as long COVID, though polio comes close.

“If even only 10% of individuals infected with COVID develop long COVID symptoms—and it may very well be much higher than this—then over 8 million people are suffering with long COVID now,” he said. “Flu and other pandemics do not typically leave such a great residual of illness and disability.”

What this Means For You

If you or someone you know is experiencing long COVID, post-COVID care clinics can help. But they’re difficult to get into. With this new federal initiative, support and understanding for the condition should improve.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Post-COVID conditions.

  2. World Health Organization. A clinical case definition of post COVID-19 condition by a Delphi consensus.

By Fran Kritz
Fran Kritz is a freelance healthcare reporter with a focus on consumer health and health policy. She is a former staff writer for Forbes Magazine and U.S. News and World Report.