COVID-19 can kill even months after infection, according to a new study

"Long COVID can affect nearly every organ system," the study's lead scientist tells Salon

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 29, 2021 2:45PM (EDT)

Sick man with covid-19 symptoms in bed (Getty Images)
Sick man with covid-19 symptoms in bed (Getty Images)

Experts already agree that, even after the COVID-19 pandemic itself becomes a thing of the past, it will leave those who endured lockdowns and other social restrictions with major trauma. As one psychiatrist told Salon in January, "This will take generations to get past." People from every walk of life have suffered: Children whose important early life milestones were disrupted, adults who were thrown out of work, millions of Americans who have lost loved ones to the disease.

A new study reveals, however, that the long-term effects of COVID-19 will involve more than the repercussions from how our society changed because of the pandemic. Emerging data reveals that COVID-19 affects multiple organ systems — and, as such, even months after getting sick, people who were infected are more likely to die than individuals who were not. Just as importantly, people who were infected by SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes COVID-19) are likely to develop persistent health issues that will require long-term care after the pandemic has ended.

"I think the main finding here is that long COVID can affect nearly every organ system," Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of the research and development service at the St. Louis VA Medical Center in Missouri and leader of the study, told Salon. "That means it's going to affect the brain through the brain fog and memory problems. It can result in stroke and it can affect the heart, causing acute heart failure, acute coronary disease. It can affect the liver. It can affect the kidneys. It can affect the clotting system and increases the risk of clotting, both in the legs and also the clots traveling into the lung."

This means that COVID-19 will likely cause long-term health issues, which will manifest themselves in a number of ways, through the foreseeable future. Al-Aly noted that the study found roughly eight excess deaths for every 1,000 individuals within the six months following an acute COVID-19 infection; in other words, an extra eight out of 1,000 people died if they had such a COVID-19 case, compared to those who did not. 

"To put it in perspective, you may think, 'Oh, this is really small. It's less than one percent,'" Al-Aly explained. "You have to multiply that by millions of people. And that's really actually a substantial number."

According to Johns Hopkins University, 149.8 million people worldwide have developed COVID-19 at the time of this writing, including 32.2 million in the United States. Within that total, 3.2 million people have died worldwide, including 574,000 in the United States.

Al-Aly also told Salon that the danger of long-term infection problems applies even for people who had COVID-19 but did not exhibit more severe symptoms.

"Even among people who did not need to be hospitalized for COVID-19, those people who had mild disease to start with and nursed their disease at home — and then had a cough and shortness of breath and maybe fever for a few days or a week or even two and then got better — even those people whose disease was not severe enough to require hospitalization are at a higher risk of consequences" down the road, Al-Aly explained. 

Another possible consequence of the pandemic is that it could lead to a resurgence in the opioid epidemic. Al-Aly noted that as people begin to show signs of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues due to SARS-CoV-2 infections, physicians may treat them with opioids, thereby exacerbating one of America's most serious addiction problems. This is symptomatic of the larger problem: Our health care systems were not prepared for a pandemic of this magnitude, and now may be equally unprepared for long-term consequences of the disease.

"There is the statistic that more than half a million people in the U.S. died from COVID-19," Al-Aly told Salon. "A lot of those deaths could have been avoided. We completely dropped the ball on that."

He added that, going forward, the increase in long-term health risks means "people with long covid need integrated multidisciplinary holistic care. Health systems should quickly adapt to this reality."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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