COVID long-haulers at higher risk of developing fatal illnesses months later, study says

Katie Camero
·3 min read

A massive study involving more than 87,000 COVID-19 patients found that recovered patients face about a 60% increased risk of death from long-term complications of the disease in the six months after initial infection compared to people who’ve never tested positive.

Some of the fatal illnesses brought on by the disease include heart failure, stroke and chronic kidney disease, according to researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in Missouri.

What’s more, the health risks from overcoming COVID-19 increased the more severe a person’s case was, with hospitalized patients who required intensive care at the highest risk of long-COVID-19 complications and death. The study was published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The team also discovered newly diagnosed health issues in people still dealing with the disease six months after infection, including hair loss, heart palpitations, anemia and acid reflux — conditions that affect nearly every organ system in the body.

Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at the university, calls long COVID-19 “America’s next big health crisis.”

“Our study demonstrates that up to six months after diagnosis, the risk of death following even a mild case of COVID-19 is not trivial and increases with disease severity,” Al-Aly, director of the clinical epidemiology center at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System, said in a statement. “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.”

The team studied health care data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on 73,435 patients who had COVID-19 but were not hospitalized and compared it to nearly 5 million veterans who never contracted the coronavirus. The majority of the people included in the study were men, but 8,880 women were included due to the large sample size.

A separate group of 13,654 COVID-19 patients who were sick enough to be hospitalized was included as well.

Six months after infection, excess deaths among people who recovered from COVID-19 were at about eight per 1,000 people. Among those who were hospitalized, there were 29 per 1,000 people.

“These later deaths due to long-term complications of the infection are not necessarily recorded as deaths due to COVID-19,” Al-Aly said. “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.”

The team also compared the group of over 13,600 hospitalized coronavirus patients to a group of nearly 14,000 who were hospitalized with the flu to better understand the long-term effects of more severe COVID-19.

People who recovered from COVID-19 not only had a 50% increased risk of death compared to recovered flu patients, but they also faced higher risks for long-term medical problems, such as substance abuse, memory problems, blood clots, skin rashes, fatigue and persistent cough.

“Long COVID-19 is more than a typical postviral syndrome,” Al-Aly said. “The size of the risk of disease and death and the extent of organ system involvement is far higher than what we see with other respiratory viruses, such as influenza.”

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