Characterizing the COVID-19 illness experience to inform the study of post-acute sequalae and recovery: a qualitative study

medRxiv. 2021 Mar 12;2021.03.10.21253330. doi: 10.1101/2021.03.10.21253330. Preprint


We aimed to characterize the variability in the illness experience and recovery process from COVID-19. We conducted in-depth individual interviews with participants enrolled in the Long-term Immunological Impact of Novel Coronavirus (LIINC) cohort study in San Francisco, California from June through October of 2020. Participants were adults who had a previously confirmed positive SARV-CoV-2 nucleic acid amplification test result, had recovered or were recovering from acute infection, and underwent serial evaluations at our clinical research center. We purposefully sampled 24 English- and Spanish-speaking adults with asymptomatic, mild and severe symptomatic infection, including those who were hospitalized, and those with HIV co-infection. Half of our sample (50.0%) identified as Latinx/Hispanic and most of the participants were men (62.5%). We used thematic analysis to characterize the illness experience, recovery process, and mental health impact of experiencing COVID-19 and present clinical data for each participant. Emergent themes were: (1) across symptom profiles and severity, experiencing COVID-19 was associated with psychological distress, (2) among participants with symptomatic infection, the illness experience was characterized by uncertainty in terms of managing symptoms and recovery, and (3) despite wide-ranging illness experiences, participants shared many common characteristics, including health information-seeking behavior facilitated by access to medical care, and uncertainty regarding the course of their illness and recovery. COVID-19 was associated with elevated levels of psychological distress, regardless of symptoms.

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