People fortunate enough to survive infection with the COVID-19 coronavirus can suffer health problems long afterward, Washington University researchers have found. Even people who didn’t need hospitalization have an increased risk of death up to six months later.
The study is the largest comprehensive look at long-term COVID-19 effects to date. The study, involving more than 87,000 COVID-19 patients and nearly 5 million control patients in a federal database, was released online April 22 in the journal Nature.
MetroSTL.com spoke with lead author senior author Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly about the serious implications of his work for area residents and people around the world.
Al-Aly said that the biggest surprise in the study was the wide range of new, chronic problems that manifested long after the initial viral infection appeared to have resolved. Despite being initially a respiratory virus, COVID-19 can affect nearly every organ system in the body. Patients in the study developed new conditions including diabetes, heart failure, stroke, breathing difficulties, memory problems, acid reflux, joint pain, muscle weakness, rashes, hair loss and more.
The more severe infection symptoms, the more chance patients had of suffering the worse effects later.
The long-term consequences of COVID-19 is America’s next big health crisis, Al-Aly said, noting the millions of infected people with potentially decades of needed health care ahead of them. Thus the figures for people who die from the immediate viral infection are only the tip of the iceberg, he explained.
Al-Aly is also director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center and chief of the Research and Education Service at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System. Researchers used the vast VA databases to catalog all the diseases that might be linked to COVID-19 infections.
According to Nature, the study included 73,435 VHA patients with confirmed COVID-19 but who were not hospitalized and, for comparison, almost 5 million VHA patients who did not have a COVID-19 diagnosis and were not hospitalized during this time frame. Most of the veterans in the study (almost 88%) were men, but the large sample size meant that the study still included 8,880 women with confirmed cases.
Al-Aly and his colleagues also plan to break down figures by age, race and gender.