The SARS pandemic tore through Hong Kong like a summer thunderstorm. It arrived abruptly, hit hard, and then was gone. Just three months separated the first infection, in March 2003, from the last, in June.
But the suffering did not end when the case count hit zero. Over the next four years, scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong discovered something worrisome. More than 40 percent of SARS survivors had an active psychiatric illness, most commonly PTSD or depression. Some felt frequent psychosomatic pain. Others were obsessive-compulsive. The findings, the researchers said, were “alarming.”
The novel coronavirus’s devastating hopscotch across the United States has long surpassed the three-month mark, and by all indications, it will not end anytime soon. If SARS is any lesson, the secondary health effects will long outlast the pandemic itself.
Already, a third of Americans are feeling severe anxiety, according to Census Bureau data, and nearly a quarter show signs of depression. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the pandemic had negatively affected the mental health of 56 percent of adults. In April, texts to a federal emergency mental-health line were up 1,000 percent from the year before. The situation is particularly dire for certain vulnerable groups—health-care workers, COVID-19 patients with severe cases, people who have lost loved ones—who face a significant risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. In overburdened intensive-care units, delirious patients are seeing chilling hallucinations. At least two overwhelmed emergency medical workers have taken their own life.