There are many reasons one might cite for why Covid-19 has stirred so much controversy. Some toss conspiracy theories around, others talk almost exclusively about politics, and only a few even try to focus on the scientific realities of the problem. Two reasons tend to ring true for most people familiar with the situation, however:
- It’s not like anything we’ve ever seen before.
- The debate about it is so far-reaching that the sheer volume of the public discussion results in a lot of discord.
And while the second reason can be pretty frustrating, the first one is perfectly normal and understandable. To this day, scientists from around the globe are still trying to figure out all the consequences and complications of the novel coronavirus.
What’s more, many scientists are starting to view a lot of those “complications” as actual direct consequences of Covid-19. While a month or two ago doctors saw kidney and brain problems as mere “complications” many now argue that these should be thought of as just direct results of the virus.
“We thought this was only a respiratory virus. Turns out, it goes after the pancreas. It goes after the heart. It goes after the liver, the brain, the kidney, and other organs. We didn’t appreciate that in the beginning,” said Dr. Eric Topol, cardiologist, and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.
Blood clotting disorders, in particular, are disturbingly common for Covid-19. Strokes, heart attacks, multiple organ failures, and seizures are among the more devastating problems the coronavirus can lead to.
Even with milder problems, however, recovery times are often slow, costly, and often – not fully reversible. This often leads even to long-term effects in officially “recovered” patients.
Dr. Sadiya Khan, a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, also agrees that the broad and diverse manifestations of COVID-19 are “somewhat unique.”
Khan noted that while with Influenza people with underlying heart conditions are also in a “risk group”, that risk is much higher and more dangerous with Covid-19. Khan also believes that the further long-term and expenditures of recovered Covid-19 patients will prove to be much greater than with other respiratory viruses.
Expect Long Rehab Times
The patients who go through intensive care units and/or have to go on ventilators for weeks but manage to pull through usually have to undergo lengthy rehabs.
“It can take up to seven days for every one day that you’re hospitalized to recover that type of strength,” Khan said. “It’s harder the older you are, and you may never get back to the same level of function.”
So far, most of the scientific, as well as political and medical attention, is on the severe and hospitalized cases. However, many doctors are raising the question about the patients who weren’t sick enough to be hospitalized but are still experiencing long-term effects after their initial recovery.
Jay Butler, deputy director of infectious diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that further studies on the long-term problems are just now getting underway.
“We hear anecdotal reports of people who have persistent fatigue, shortness of breath,” Butler said. “How long that will last is hard to say.”
Dr. Helen Salisbury of the University of Oxford who also agrees, adds that an estimated 1 in 10 patients experience prolonged symptoms and other complications. She also shares that even after X-rays show no signs of inflammation in many recovered patients, their health may not be fully back to normal.
“If you previously ran 5k three times a week and now feel breathless after a single flight of stairs, or if you cough incessantly and are too exhausted to return to work, then the fear that you may never regain your previous health is very real,” Salisbury said.
Dr. Igor Koralnik, chief of neuro-infectious diseases at Northwestern Medicine also noted that, according to the current scientific literature, about half of hospitalized Covid-19 patients experience prolonged neurological complications. These can vary from dizziness and decreased alertness to smell and taste, muscle pain, and weakness.
Khan also sees parallels with the AIDS virus HIV and Covid-19. With HIV, most of the early focus was also on the deaths and not on its other effects.
“In recent years, we’ve been very focused on the cardiovascular complications of HIV survivorship,” Khan said.
Hopefully, as a society, we’ll be more expedient in realizing the long-term complications of Covid-19 than we were with HIV and other diseases.