COVID-19 is hardly more frustrating than the way it’s portrayed in the media, and right-wing media in particular. Instead of speaking of a death rate, the disease is often described on the right as a “99% survival rate”. There is a strong indication that only those people who are flawed in any way – poor health, bad habits, old age – need to worry, and everyone else will sail through. Look at Donald Trump. He got it and immediately came back to yell at America in an almost continuous chain of rallies.
But of course, Trump received experimental treatment with monoclonal antibodies. In fact, he was given four times the normal dose. And although Trump has repeatedly promised to make this treatment available to everyone free of charge, there aren’t enough doses currently available to treat COVID-19 patients for even a day. The government has pledged to eventually hand out a total of 300,000 cans, which is not enough to handle two days of last week. That’s all.
Meanwhile, millions of others have had a completely different experience. As the Wall Street Journal reports, even people who go through the first few weeks of COVID-19 with little to no symptoms find that the disease has “a second act.”
Many are faced with symptoms weeks or months after their expected recovery, often with puzzling new complications that can affect the entire body – severe fatigue, cognitive and memory problems, digestive problems, irregular heart rates, headaches, dizziness, fluctuating blood pressure, even hair loss.
Not only can these problems occur in young patients who survived the initial infection with few symptoms, they actually appear to be more likely in these patients than in those who had a difficult reaction to the disease in the first few weeks. Based on surveys, about 10% of COVID-19 patients between 18 and 49 still had symptoms four weeks after their first illness. A quarter of these patients were still ill two months later. A second study produced even more intimidating results. 25% of all patients said they still saw symptoms three months after being infected. And that’s still not as bad as a European study that found that a third of all patients were “dependent on a caregiver” months after symptoms began.
There is a big difference between having a cold for a few weeks and dependent care for at least three months.
If a third of all Americans infected with COVID-19 have long-term health effects, that’s 5 million people. Even if it is “only” 10%, that is already 1.5 million people. In addition to a shipload of misery and disappointment for those affected, these are numbers that both remove billions from the economy and burden the health system with billions.
It was already clear that almost anything could be a symptom of COVID-19 infection, but how can a single illness cause so many long-term effects? Much of the guilt seems to have come from an effect that causes everything from muscle pain to devastating injuries to the lungs and heart – inflammation.
The inflammation resulting from infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to persist even after the immune system has dealt with the virus itself. Studies have shown that even college athletes who have gone through COVID-19 experience heart damage that persists after illness. Another study showed that 78% of COVID-19 patients had signs of heart damage two months later, with 60% still showing evidence of inflamed heart tissue. Both studies were conducted in patients who were not hospitalized and who had little to no initial symptoms.
“Even those who had no symptoms and were young and fit … even in these patients we saw abnormalities,” said Eike Nagel, one of the lead authors and directors of the Institute for Experimental and Translational Cardiovascular Imaging at the University Hospital Frankfurt in Germany.
The same inflammation could be responsible for long-lasting digestive problems, especially since the coronavirus can apparently remain in the gut even when patients receive negative test results from nasal swabs. And inflammation can be behind damage to the nervous system that leads to both persistent “brain fog” and changes in the autonomic nervous system that can lead to racing or irregular heartbeats and rapidly changing blood pressure.
It’s not clear how long these symptoms will last, but the fact that some of the earliest COVID-19 patients are still among the “long distance drivers” with persistent symptoms suggests … too long. All of this shows the importance of not only finding treatments that will prevent death from COVID-19, but simply preventing COVID-19.
Back to that IHME model of potential outcomes, there aren’t any good numbers. There is, however, a “best” number. It’s not because vaccines are introduced faster. It comes from the universal use of masks.