COVID-19 Isn’t Just a Matter of Life or Death

Here are some of the long-term health effects of contracting the virus.

In order to track the spread of COVID-19, we have all relied on two numbers: confirmed cases and deaths. I pointed out previously that since it is primarily people who have been hospitalized and those at extreme risk who are being tested, we don’t really know how many people have contracted the virus.

Recently a study was released by researchers in California suggesting that the number of cases could be 50 to 80 times higher than what has been reported. But as Josh Marshall explains, the methods used are suspect, while the researchers seem to have an agenda.

The team behind the Santa Clara study is a group of doctors and researchers from Stanford University, two of whom are what we might call COVID19 severity skeptics. To be clear, I’m not talking about crazies or conspiracy theorists. These are credentialed medical specialists who’ve argued that COVID19 is likely more widespread than we know and thus less lethal than we fear. Because of this they have argued that the public health measures employed in the US are too severe.

In other words, the case these researchers want to make is that, because COVID-19 is much more widespread than we thought, the death rates from the disease are a lot lower than anyone thinks, meaning that the measures we have taken to slow down its spread are an overreaction. What that implies is that the only concern we should have about the disease is the number of people who die from it.

Similarly, when Texas Attorney General Dan Patrick justifies reopening that state’s economy by saying that “there are more important things than living,” he is suggesting that the only concern we should consider is whether contracting COVID-19 will kills us.

All of this focus on death rates has skewed our thinking about this pandemic by completely ignoring the possibility that COVID-19 could also have long-term health effects for those who survive. The truth is that, because this virus is so new, we don’t know a lot about how it will affect those who recover. But it is still worth considering what we know so far.

Julia Ries points to the first thing we need to keep in mind.

When the body is exposed to an infection like COVID-19, it mounts an inflammatory response, in which the immune system pumps out cells to fight the virus. With COVID-19, some people’s bodies are producing way too much of an inflammatory response that’s harming critical organs like the lungs, kidneys, and heart, according to Khalilah Gates, a pulmonologist and assistant professor of pulmonary, critical care and medical education at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

For people with moderate to severe reactions to the virus, it is the overproduction of an inflammatory response that causes their symptoms. The most common concern is that the response can cause irreversible scarring (fibrosis) in the lungs, resulting in a lack of lung capacity. Similar issues can occur in the heart.

COVID-19 is also putting extreme stress on people’s hearts. Harvard University specialists called it “one big stress test for the heart,” stating that the inflammation and high fevers brought on by the coronavirus weaken the heart and increase the risk for cardiac abnormalities like blood clotting.

There are also concerns about potential liver or kidney damage, along with indications that the virus attacks T-cells in a way that is similar to HIV.

My purpose in highlighting all of that isn’t to be a “Debbie Downer.” But we have approached this pandemic with a familiar bifurcated either/or assumption: if you contract COVID-19, you either die, or survive and live happily ever after. That won’t be the case for some people. They will be struggling with the long-term effects of this virus for the rest of their lives.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.