The US death toll from long-standing COVID-19 exceeds 4,000, says the CDC report

The US death toll from long-standing COVID-19 exceeds 4,000, says the CDC report
The US death toll from long-standing COVID-19 exceeds 4,000, says the CDC report

The health challenges that the COVID-19 outbreak sometimes leaves behind can be disturbing, frightening and quite mysterious. New research confirms that they can be deadly too.
A study released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between January 2020 and June 2022, long-term COVID caused at least 3,544 deaths in the United States alone.
The study authors acknowledge that the ongoing death toll from COVID is likely a significantly smaller number of people whose deaths are at least partly due to the ongoing effects of COVID-19. That represents only a fraction – less than 0.4 percent – ​​of the more than 1 million pandemic deaths that occurred in the United States during the study period.

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But the new research adds to the growing body of evidence that victims of COVID-19 don’t always test negative. And it suggests that for many patients, the disease’s new symptoms — from anxiety and trouble sleeping to abnormal heart rhythms and blood clots — may have unrecognized roots in previous coronavirus infections.

Sometimes these symptoms stem from an infection that the patient is not even aware of.

“The virus has a long-term effect,” says Dr. Ziyad Al-Ali, a doctor with the Veterans Affairs Health System in St. Louis who has researched the downstream health effects of encounters with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“We’re pretty good at detecting acute disease,” he added. But researchers and medical professionals have a “huge blind spot” when it comes to predicting and recognizing the long-term effects of a viral infection, he said.

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Al-Ali, who was not involved in the new CDC study, teaches epidemiology at the University of Washington in St. Louis. He led a recent study that found a sharp increase of 20 cardiovascular diagnoses in patients within a year of infection with the virus that causes COVID.

The CDC report indicated an “underestimated” number of deaths likely related to the ongoing COVID, said Al-Ali. But, he adds, it’s becoming clear that with more awareness and better accounting systems, researchers can begin to understand how often viral infections sow the seeds of future suffering.

For most of the time period covered by the new study, the ongoing health effects of COVID-19 were not well-defined syndromes. Scientists recognized it as a post-acute sequelae of COVID, or PASC, and the federal government launched a program to study it in February 2021.
In October 2021, the US government created a unique medical code to identify PASCs in medical records. But the causes of widespread PASC symptoms are often unknown, and doctors across the US still do not use identifying medical codes consistently.

So to track deaths in which PASC likely played a role, researchers at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics had to look for clues hidden in the language of death certificates. They started with 1,021,487 US death certificates that listed COVID-19 as the primary cause. They then look for evidence of “chronic COVID,” “long-term COVID,” “long-term COVID,” or “post-COVID syndrome” — all terms commonly used to describe a series of illnesses that affect some patients. clear recovery from the disease.

The precise picture of PASC—what most medical professionals now refer to as long-term COVID—is evolving. Typical symptoms are tiredness, coughing, chest pain or shortness of breath, muscle weakness, brain fog, palpitations, and anxiety or depression.

The World Health Organization reports that about 1 in 4 people who have COVID-19 continue to experience at least one symptom a month after diagnosis, and about 1 in 10 have symptoms that persist after 12 weeks. In the United States, 7.5% of people who reported having COVID-19 reported continuing effects three months after recovery.

Scientists are scrambling to understand the causes of the long COVID. One hypothesis is that the syndrome is caused by residual viruses that continue to activate and/or weaken the immune system. Others attribute it to viruses that hide and multiply undetected in organs where the immune system can’t reach them. The simplest explanation — that severe cases of COVID-19 cause permanent organ damage — doesn’t explain why people who rarely get sick sometimes get long-lasting COVID.

The new study finds that the post-infection death spiral is most easily seen in the elderly: more than 78% of death certificates listing long-term COVID as the probable cause were in patients aged 65 and over.

Although women were thought to be more likely than men to develop long-standing COVID, the study found that death certificates showing old COVID were slightly more likely to mention a man’s name (51.5%) than a woman’s (48.5%).

As the pandemic progresses, the list of organs that can be affected by COVID grows, painting a picture of a virus that has spread far beyond the lungs and upper respiratory tract. Likewise, as research advances, long-term COVID could appear to affect a wider range of organs.

Cardiovascular problems now appear on both expanded lists. Months into the pandemic, doctors and scientists began to realize that the coronavirus causes blood clots that lead to strokes, heart attacks and embolisms.

The study of Al-Ali and his colleagues shows that patients are at increased risk of various cardiovascular problems in the period of one to 12 months after recovering from COVID-19.

Compared to a similar group of patients who did not have COVID-19, they were 52% more likely to have had a stroke and more likely to have some form of blockage of blood flow to the heart, including one leading to a 66% higher risk of heart attack. Additionally, former COVID patients were 69% more likely to develop some form of cardiac arrhythmia than their unaffected counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, people who are hospitalized with COVID are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular complications. But patients with little exposure to the coronavirus are also at higher risk. And while those over 65 years of age are most likely to experience this complication, younger, healthier patients are also at increased risk.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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