A study found that people who had COVID-19 but didn’t require hospitalization were at a 60% higher risk of death from other illnesses than people who didn’t contract the virus

By Julie Mazziotta
April 23, 2021 04:58 PM
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People who contracted COVID-19 could be at a higher risk for other illnesses for months after their initial infection, a large new study found.

A study of more than 73,000 Americans who had COVID-19 but were not severely sick enough to require hospitalization were found to be at a 60% higher risk of death in the six months after their infection than people who did not contract the virus.

The study, published in the journal Nature, was based on medical records of patients in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system, comparing people who contracted COVID-19 and those who did not. It is one of the largest studies yet to examine the phenomenon of "long-haul COVID."

In the six months after their initial infection, people with COVID-19 were found to be at a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. They were also more likely to have new medical problems they hadn't experienced before in all parts of the body, from the lungs to the brain to the heart to the stomach.

"We found it all," Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of the research and development service at the VA St. Louis Health Care System and an author of the study, told The New York Times. "What was shocking about this when you put it all together was like 'Oh my God,' you see the scale. It's still jarring, honestly."

"We knew people have fatigue, we knew people have weakness, we knew about the memory problems or brain fog," he added to NPR. "But when you put it all together, the diabetes and heart problems and kidney problems and liver problems and stroke and brain fog and fatigue and anemia and depression and anxiety — and it's actually quite jarring."

The researchers also used the medical records to look at more than 13,600 people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 and compare them to nearly 14,000 people who were hospitalized for the flu. While both groups were sick enough to require hospitalization, the lasting effects of COVID-19 were very different from those of influenza. People who contracted COVID-19 were at a higher risk of lasting lung problems, among other conditions.

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Because the study was based on the health records of veterans, most of the patients were male, though 8,800 were women. Al-Aly also said to NPR that "the majority of people [who contract COVID-19] will have no problems and no consequences down the road … but it is true, though, that a minority of people, even if they have mild disease, they are at higher risk of developing some of the consequences that we described here. So the risk is not zero — it's small, but it's not trivial."

And after nearly 32 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., the country needs to find a way to support long-haul sufferers.

"That really represents a significant burden on the health care system that we need to be prepared for," he said. "We shouldn't really act surprised two or three years down the road, when people are having of a lot more diabetes or a lot more people with heart disease show up. We shouldn't really act surprised. We should prepare for it now."

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