Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have observed a higher risk of death among people with COVID-19 in the six months following the diagnosis. These patients included those that weren’t hospitalized. The team also provided a better picture of the potential scale of health problems that follow survival from the virus.
The study, which appeared in Nature, is the biggest and most comprehensive yet on the long-term health effects of COVID-19. It involved over 87,000 patients plus almost five million control patients from a federal database.
In addition to showing an increased risk of death, the researchers provided a long list of diseases that are linked to COVID-19 survivors. This indicates the kind of burden the virus may put on countries across the world in years ahead.
“Our study demonstrates that up to six months after diagnosis, the risk of death following even a mild case of COVID-19 is not trivial and increases with disease severity,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, senior author and an assistant professor of medicine.
Al-Aly noted that long COVID-19, or long-term health effects of COVID-19, is the next big health crisis in America. Over 30 million people have been infected with the coronavirus in the United States.
Studying long-term effects of COVID-19 among survivors
For their research, Al-Aly and his colleagues evaluated national healthcare data from the databases of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Among the patients in the dataset were 73,435 VHA patients with COVID-19 diagnoses – these were not hospitalized.
The researchers also included nearly five million VHA patients that were not diagnosed with the virus or hospitalized during the same period.
In a separate analysis, the team used VHA data to compare 13,654 COVID-19 patients that were hospitalized to 13,997 people hospitalized with seasonal flu.
All of these patients survived for at least 30 days after being hospitalized. The investigation also involved six months of follow-up data.
Increased death and health risks
The research team observed a higher death risk of 50% among COVID-19 survivors, compared to flu survivors.
The death rate was estimated at eight excess deaths per 1,000 patients among all COVID-19 survivors at six months. People that were hospitalized due to the virus showed excess deaths of roughly 29 per 1,000 patients about six months at the six-month point.
“These later deaths due to long-term complications of the infection are not necessarily recorded as death due to COVID-19,” Al-Aly noted. “As far as the total pandemic death toll, these numbers suggest that the deaths we’re counting due to the immediate viral infection are only a tip of the iceberg.”
Although regarded as a respiratory disease, COVID-19 impacts almost every organ in the body. The scientists observed newly diagnosed serious health issues in COVID-19 patients that remained for at least six months after evaluating 379 disease diagnoses among others.
The health problems affected almost all organs and systems in the body. Among those affected are the kidney, skin, nervous system, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system.
Findings showed that the health burden among survivors increased with the seriousness of the infection.