Across the US, tens of thousands of people who were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have struggled with a buffet of debilitating symptoms that made it impossible for them to work or live normal lives. Many of those who were eligible sought disability as baffled scientists tried to determine the cause of the "long hauler" syndrome, as it has come to be known.
Media outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times have chronicled the experiences of individuals struggling with "long hauler" syndrome months after they first contracted COVID-19. Some patients noted that, while they more or less felt fine, their sense of smell and taste had yet to return. Others complained that a persistent "brain fog" had settled over them. With doctors offering few answers, many sufferers turned to online communities to pool their experiences.
Now, the latest research published in the journal Nature shows that "long haulers" are at much higher risk of dying from their protracted symptoms.
How much higher? The data showed survivors had a 59% increased risk of dying within six months after contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Nature. This excess mortality translates into about 8 extra deaths per 1,000 patients. That's worsening the pandemic’s hidden toll amid growing recognition that many patients require readmission, and some die, weeks after the viral infection abates.
"When we are looking at the acute phase, we’re only pretty much looking at the tip of the iceberg," said Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of the research and development service at the St. Louis VA Medical Center in Missouri, who led the study, and spoke to Bloomberg in an interview. "We’re starting to see a little bit beneath that iceberg, and it’s really alarming.”
Al-Aly and his colleagues documented the cascade of debilitating symptoms that plague long haulers even months after their diagnosis: from blood clots, stroke, diabetes and breathing difficulties to heart, liver and kidney damage, depression, anxiety and memory loss.
Globally, more than 143 million people have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 3 million have died from the disease. As for how many become long haulers, some other studies have put the number at roughly 10%, according to Bloomberg. But nobody really knows, and those who pass away months later from the condition typically aren't counted among COVID-19 deaths.
Adding to the host of risk factors, long-haulers required increased use of various medications, including antidepressants and opioids. "We worry about potential spikes in suicide or potential spikes in overdose of opioids," Al-Aly told Bloomberg in an interview.
Look at the numbers from a broader perspective, the researchers found that patients with COVID-19 who survived hospitalization had a 51% higher risk of dying compared with 13,997 influenza patients who also had been hospitalized. Al-Aly, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine, said he hoped the research would provide a roadmap to inform health-system planning and care strategies to mitigate chronic ill health among Covid-19 survivors, especially in the U.S. "Let’s not act surprised two years down the road, when people start committing suicide," he said. "We did not do very well preparing and dealing with Covid. Let’s not make that mistake a second time."
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