WASHINGTON - Last March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, it had already proved to be lethal and highly contagious. It was a new virus with many unknowns. Since then, scientists have learned a lot about how it affects vital organs and its long-term effects.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a virus — officially known as SARS-COV2, short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
It’s the second time a coronavirus has sickened people and caused death. SARS first appeared in China in November 2002. The current version of the virus emerged from China in 2019, which is why it is called COVID-19.
The virus invades the lungs. Once there, it multiplies and neutralizes the molecules that help us fight infection.
Most people recover, but the virus can damage the lungs and leave patients gasping for air.
Thomas Steele needed a double lung transplant because of COVID-19.
“It’s nothing like sitting in your hospital room gasping for every breath and air you take, and I did that for 58 days,” Steele said.
The lungs pass oxygen into the bloodstream, and the virus can damage the lungs and make the oxygen levels fall.
Patients may need to be put on a ventilator to help them breathe.
COVID-19 can also cause dangerous clotting in the bloodstream. People who already have damaged blood vessels, from high blood pressure or stroke, and those with heart disease have a higher risk of serious disease.
These clots can form throughout the body, including in the lungs and the heart. The clotting can cause heart attack or stroke.
Dr. Allen Anderson at University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio is one of many cardiologists who saw people with healthy hearts suffer heart damage.
“They had elevations of blood enzyme markers that were consistent with a heart attack even though they didn’t have any blockages in their coronary arteries, they had heart rhythm disturbances, and this occurred with quite high provenance,” Anderson said.
The virus and the inflammation that accompanies it, can damage the heart tissue. Some of the damage can be reversed. But some cannot.
Doctors have also learned that the virus can damage another vital organ — the kidneys. A large New York medical system looked at more than 5,000 COVID patients last year.
Dr. Kenar Jhaveri at Hofstra/Northwell in Great Neck, New York is the lead author whose findings were published in the journal Kidney International.
“Of the 5,449 patients, 36.6% of them developed acute renal failure or kidney injury. Of the ones that got kidney injury, 14% required dialysis,” Jhaveri said.
Scientists are still studying the impact of COVID-19 on the body. But the most severe effects start with the lungs. Damaged lungs have a harder time getting oxygen to the bloodstream. And organs need oxygen to function. If there is none, they can fail … the lungs, the heart, the kidneys and the liver.
And then there are long-term consequences of the disease. Some are not life-threatening but can affect the quality of life.
Symptoms include persistent fatigue, headache, shortness of breath or chest pain. Others may experience brain fog or memory issues. And still others have lingering feelings of anxiety and depression.
Anyone, not just those who were hospitalized, can have long-term symptoms. And there’s no way to tell who will be affected.
“We don’t really know right now how many patients will develop these long-COVID symptoms after they have had this infection," Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, explained. " Studies look at anywhere between 10% and 80%, so there could be a large number of people who are experiencing symptoms well after that four-week time period when we expect people to normally recover.”
Some medical centers have started special clinics to treat the long-haulers, people whose symptoms persist even after they have recovered from COVID. Others may not be long-haulers, but their lives have changed drastically because of COVID-19.
“I’ll never be the same person for the rest of my life,” Steele said.
He is one of many who will never be the same because of COVID-19.