Even though serious COVID disease didn’t emerge in the United States until spring 2020, it sure seems like we’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for a long time.
Despite the promising news we hear about the reduction in new infections, hospitalizations and death, this pandemic isn’t over. There’s likely much more misery and death to come worldwide. This infectious disease outbreak is the deadliest since the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. COVID will well surpass these numbers before it’s over.
In the United States, increased vaccination is reducing disease and deaths, and infections are down. We need to overcome vaccine hesitancy, and vaccinating those ages 12 through 15 and now ages 5 through 11 will help. If you’re not already, please get vaccinated and encourage others to do the same. Vaccinations will help us contain the spread, establish herd immunity, stop the rise of variants and permit a return to normal life.
While a reduction in the number of infections is good news, scientists and doctors are beginning to understand the chronic illness that lingers after COVID infection, called long-haul syndrome. Long-haul patients were infected and appeared to recover, but then chronic symptoms began and remained months after the infection. Extreme fatigue and debilitating brain fog are common symptoms.
Soon after the pandemic exploded in spring 2020 in the United States, I remember talking with a heart surgeon colleague in New Orleans. He was looking at autopsy tissues from COVID victims and noticed areas of bleeding in the kidneys, the liver, the brain and the lungs. This confirmed that COVID-19 had major impacts on multiple organ systems. We think of COVID as “just” a respiratory disease, but it’s not.
A British study looked at organ damage in almost 50,000 patients that had been discharged from hospitals after COVID-19 and compared them to a control group. They found nearly one-third of COVID patients were readmitted to the hospital, and more than 10 percent of the readmissions died from this post-COVID illness. This was four times more readmissions and eight times more deaths than the control group of patients.
The COVID patients also were 27 times more likely to have new respiratory disease and three times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than the control group. Higher incidence of diabetes also was observed. In another study, COVID patients developed diabetes at a 39 percent higher rate: a rate six times higher than non-COVID patients — as if having COVID wasn’t enough.
While the incidence of organ damage was similar in men and women, it was higher in those younger than 70 and also among those in ethnic minority groups. Overall, it’s estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of those who recover from COVID will face some type of long-haul symptoms.
No one yet understands how long these long-haul symptoms may last or if they will become lifelong. Given the 30 million cases in the United States, long haul will be a significant disease for us as a country for years to come.