Study: COVID-19 Can Kill Months After Infection

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Long-haul COVID-19 patients face many health threats — including a higher chance of dying — up to 6 months after they catch the virus, according to a massive study published in the journal Nature.

Researchers examined more than 87,000 COVID-19 patients and nearly 5 million control patients in a federal database. They found COVID-19 patients had a 59% higher risk of death up to 6 months after infection, compared to noninfected people.

Those findings translate into about eight extra deaths per 1000 patients over 6 months, because many deaths caused by long-term COVID complications are not recorded as COVID-19 deaths, the researchers said. Among patients who were hospitalized and died after more than 30 days, there were 29 excess deaths per 1000 patients over 6 months.

“As far as total pandemic death toll, these numbers suggest that the deaths we’re counting due to the immediate viral infection are only the tip of the iceberg,” Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, the senior author of the study and a director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center at the Veterans Affairs St Louis Health Care System, said in a news release from the University of Washington Medical School in St Louis, Missouri.

Johns Hopkins University says more than 3 million people worldwide and about 570,000 people in the United States have died of coronavirus-related reasons.

Long-haul COVID patients also had a much higher chance of getting sick, and not just in the respiratory system, according to the study.

The patients had a high rate of stroke and other nervous system ailments; mental health problems such as depression; the onset of diabetes; heart disease and other coronary problems; diarrhea and digestive disorders; kidney disease; blood clots; joint pain; hair loss; and general fatigue.

Patients often had clusters of these ailments. And the more severe the case of COVID-19, the higher the chance of long-term health problems, the study said.

Researchers based their study on healthcare databases of the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Besides the 87,000 COVID patients, the database included about 5 million patients who didn’t catch COVID. The veterans in the study were about 88% men, but the large sample size included 8880 women with confirmed cases, the news release said.

Al-Aly, an assistant professor at Washington University Medical School, said the study shows that long-haul COVID-19 could be “America’s next big health crisis.”

“Our study demonstrates that up to 6 months after diagnosis, the risk of death following even a mild case of COVID-19 is not trivial and increases with disease severity,” he said. “Given that more than 30 million Americans have been infected with this virus, and given that the burden of long COVID-19 is substantial, the lingering effects of this disease will reverberate for many years and even decades.”

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