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Long-Term Effects of COVID

July 02, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST.

Of the estimated 4.3 million people worldwide who have a confirmed case of COVID-19, about 1.5 million are still recovering. Health professionals are still learning what recovery looks like, and what the long-term damage could be to survivors.

While some survivors are suffering long-term effects, both physical and mental, experts say the overwhelming majority are recovering seemingly without long-term effects. 80% of people who contracted COVID-19 didn’t have severe symptoms, and they’ll recover fully. However, there is a small percentage with severe symptoms who doctors believe could potentially suffer life-long effects on their lungs and other organs.

Point to any recent account of a survivor who endured a severe case of the virus and you’ll find lung collapse, kidney damage, mental health issues, even appendage amputation.

Already, there are signs of long-term health impacts from these symptoms. Obviously, respiratory issues could endure, but the heart, kidneys, liver, brain, blood vessels, nerves and digestive system could also suffer long after the virus is gone from the body. For those who suffered severe symptoms, the immune system and blood clotting could be impacted even after recovery.

Sometimes, even the treatment could lead to permanent damage. It’s a well-known fact within the health community that time on a ventilator, in the ICU, or drug therapies may cause life-long health issues.

A study in Wuhan, China (often considered ground-zero for the COVID-19 virus), found survivors face a host of possible lasting health concerns:

  • 42% suffered sepsis
  • 36% had respiratory failure
  • 12% faced heart problems
  • 7% had blood clotting issues

Even those without severe symptoms can present abnormal bodily functions. A recent study found 47% who had a mild case and 61% with a moderate case had abnormal liver function, and 50% who didn’t even show symptoms had abnormal lung function, even without lung-related symptoms. Doctors don’t know what the long-term impacts of those abnormalities could be.

But health systems are organizing after-care for previous COVID-19 patients. As an example, the Montefiore Health Care System in the Bronx set up a \“COVID-19 discharge clinic\” for patients who have recovered enough to leave the hospital. After the patient is discharged, teams of providers check in via telephone to make sure their patient’s symptoms continue to dissipate. COVID-19 survivors are also encouraged to follow up on abnormal lab test results to continue to monitor the long-term impact on kidney and liver function. Doctors also focus on monitoring breathing and blood clotting.

At New York University hospital system, patients are sent home with an incentive spirometer (a device that guides users to take slow, deep breaths to expand lungs); a pulse oximeter (to monitor blood oxygen levels); blood thinning medications; and a follow-up calls to monitor for worsening symptoms or bleeding.

In addition to the physical effects, there’s also always the mental health aspects to consider. Patients recovering after COVID-19 related hospitalization, or even those with milder cases of the virus, are seeking care for anxiety, stress and fear, long after the virus has left their system.

Doctors say there are five essential elements to buffer against long-term adverse mental effects. Survivors are encouraged to find things that enhance their sense of safety, calming, social connectedness, self-reliance, and hope/optimism.

Many survivors are finding those elements within altruistic endeavors. Many are donating their blood products to help in further research. Doctors feel philanthropic endeavors like blood donations not only help patients deal with the mental stress typically suffered by COVID-19 survivors, but are also going to be a vital contribution to research on treatment, recovery, and even a vaccine.

In addition, survivors are sharing their stories of recovery, symptoms, and total COVID-19 experience to help raise awareness and provide a sense of hope to others. While the long-term effects of the virus are still unknown, recovery is possible, and survivors all over the world are a testament to human endurance.