People who survive the acute phase of COVID-19 — the first 30 days after developing the viral infection — are still more likely to experience illness and death over the next six months according to a new study published in the journal Nature.
The new research confirms the fears of many doctors and scientists that the viral infection could have lasting effects on the health and survival of people who develop it, and suggests that the healthcare system may be dealing with the after-effects of COVID-19 for some time even after the current pandemic ends. Researchers looked at healthcare databases from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to identify diagnoses, medication use, and laboratory test results in people who survived the initial 30 days of a COVID-19 infection. They found that compared with similar people who didn’t develop COVID-19, these COVID-19 survivors were more likely to have respiratory illnesses, nervous system and neurocognitive disorders, mental health disorders, cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, malaise, fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, and anemia in the next six months.
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Long-term health consequences of COVID-19
As noted in an article on the study in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the study involved over 85,000 COVID-19 survivors and almost 5 million others who didn’t develop COVID-19. Beyond the increased risk of numerous health problems, the study found a far higher risk of death among COVID-19 survivors — almost a 60% higher risk of dying from any cause within six months. Among all COVID-19 survivors, excess deaths (compared with people who didn’t develop COVID-19) were estimated at eight per 1,000 people. Among those who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 and survived the first 30 days, excess deaths over the next six months were estimated at 29 per 1,000 people — meaning that almost 3% of these people died, in addition to the number of deaths that would be expected in people who didn’t have COVID-19.
This study represents the first large effort to look at the full range of potential long-term health consequences of COVID-19, rather than focusing on a couple of specific symptoms or conditions that survivors may experience. It’s also the first large study to look at death from all causes among COVID-19 survivors, whose deaths beyond 30 days of developing the infection are unlikely to be recorded as being related to COVID-19.
One downside of the study is that the veteran population it looked at was 88% male, and men are known based on previous studies to have a higher risk for acute complications of COVID-19. But the sheer size of the study means that it included 8,880 women who were COVID-19 survivors, a large number in its own right that means there was plenty of data on the long-term effects of COVID-19 in women.
“The findings show that beyond the acute illness, substantial burden of health loss…is experienced by COVID-19 survivors,” the researchers wrote. “The results provide a roadmap to inform health system planning and development of multidisciplinary care strategies to reduce chronic health loss among COVID-19 survivors.”
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