Up to 5% of long Covid patients are still 'disabled' a year after catching the virus, an infectious diseases expert has said.
Consultant in infectious diseases Professor Jack Lambert told the Oireachtas Committee on Health that Ireland needs "a new plan" to tackle the condition, because the current one has serious gaps.
Prof Lambert said people "are being let down" by health authorities as a result.
Almost a third of people who get Covid-19 are getting long Covid, the committee heard, with up to one in 20 of all Covid patients still being unable to work a year later.
Prof Lambert admitted the first adult Covid patient in Ireland to the Mater Hospital in March 2020.
He said that since then, he "suspects" that his team has treated a greater number of Covid patients than any other facility in the country, having treated "a thousand patients".
Most of his long Covid patients are "healthcare workers who never missed a day of work in their life", he said.
Yet they are being "told there's nothing wrong with them", and that they "are making up their illness".
"I think it's got a subtle effect on many people", Prof Lambert said, noting that the brain is "the primary target of long Covid".
In patients, "the lungs are healing, the heart is healing, but the brain is not healing", he said, and the
damage caused to the brain, including inflammation, is increasingly the focus "in international literature".
He said that neurological damage is not being adequately addressed in the current treatment regime in Ireland, and criticised a lack of focus on psychological and psychiatric supports.
"The current clinics need to be re-purposed," he said, adding that family doctors will also be central to any effective response.
"There needs to be guidance to the GPs" who are "putting band aids on the problem" and are "doing the best they can", he said, but as they do not understand the nature of the condition, they cannot treat it effectively.
His comments come as the number of patients with Covid-19 in hospitals around the country has topped 900.
As of 8am, there were 906 people in hospital with the virus, up 57 on the same time yesterday. Of these, 37 are in intensive care units, an increase of five on yesterday.
Prof Lambert told the committee that while vaccines "keep you from dying", they have "minimal benefit" in preventing long Covid.
It's "a scary virus", he said, adding that he continues to wear his mask.
He said that long Covid patients also "take a hit" on their immune systems and symptoms include tinnitus, brain fog, coughing, difficulty swallowing and passing-out. Patients also experience anxiety, depression and PTSD.
He said that as many of those affected are nurses, a failure to introduce a new treatment regime will have knock-on effects on the health service.
"Conservatively" he estimated that 1% of those who get Covid-19 are "unable to work, unable to function, unable to get out of bed" long after they contracted the illness.
As there have been "about five million" cases of Covid in Ireland, "that's a large population of people who are being disabled" by long Covid, Prof Lambert said.
He also said that some patients have had the condition since March 2020, and warned that forcing someone back to work too early means that "they crash, and they're back to square one".
North Dublin GP Dr Ray Walley said the current wave of Covid-19 is creating a constant workload in GP practices.
He said there is far more mask wearing on public transport and in shopping centres but he said he was concerned about airports.
"I am surprised that we are on a daily basis seeing pictures of congregations in our airports and we are seeing very little mask wearing on those people who are very much packed together and I would be concerned about that."
He said this virus is going to be in our community for some time and that "we need to develop a better way to live with it - part of that is mask wearing".
Dr Walley said mandatory mask wearing is not going to necessarily make people wear a mask, that it is down to personal responsibility.
Speaking about long Covid and Professor Lambert's comments, Dr Walley said he was surprised at the figure of 5% of people with long Covid "it would not be something I experience in north Dublin".
He said he did agree that there needs to be better care pathways for people with long Covid.
"Such that we can get these people better, so that we can ensure they are not isolated because a lot of them do feel left behind," he said.