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COVID-19 survivors have higher risk of dying from health complications, study finds

Experts continue to uncover the long-term health risks associated with the virus

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Recent studies have found that COVID-19 has been linked with a number of long-term health risks, including hearing loss, heart complications, and brain damage. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Washington University School of Medicine explored how the virus has impacted consumers’ long-term health and overall mortality risk. 

“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 researcher Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly. 

“It is not an exaggeration to say that long COVID-19 -- the long-term health consequences of COVID-19 -- is America’s next big health crisis. Given that more than 30 million Americans have been infected with this virus, and given that the burden of long COVID-19 is substantial, the lingering effects of this disease will reverberate for many years and even decades. Physicians must be vigilant in evaluating people who have had COVID-19. These patients will need integrated, multidisciplinary care.” 

What are the long-term health risks?

The researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and compared information on more than 5 million patients who hadn’t had COVID-19 with more than 73,000 patients who were diagnosed with the virus but weren’t hospitalized. The team also compared long-term health outcomes of patients that were hospitalized with COVID-19 versus patients who were hospitalized with the flu. 

The team found that being hospitalized due to the coronavirus was worse than being hospitalized with the flu. Not only was the coronavirus linked with more long-term health issues, but the number of excess deaths was also higher among COVID-19 patients than flu patients. 

“Compared with flu, COVID-19 showed remarkably higher burden of disease, both in the magnitude of the risk and the breadth of the organ system involvement,” Dr. Al-Aly said. “Long COVID-19 is more than a typical post-viral syndrome. The size of the risk of disease and death and the extent of organ system involvement is far higher than what we see with other respiratory viruses, such as influenza.” 

Sixty percent higher risk of death in first six months

Overall, the researchers learned that the risk of death in the first six months after a coronavirus infection was nearly 60 percent higher. 

“These later deaths due to long-term health complications of the infection are not necessarily recorded as deaths due to COVID-19,” said Dr. Al-Aly said. “As far as total pandemic deaths, these numbers suggest that the deaths we’re counting due to the immediate viral infection are only the tip of the iceberg.” 

The team found that having COVID-19 affected nearly every bodily system, and many patients are likely to experience several issues after infection. As more time passes and more research is done on the long-term effects of COVID-19, the researchers expect to learn even more about how the virus affects consumers’ health and wellness.

“Some of these problems may improve with time -- for example, shortness of breath and cough may get better -- and some problems may get worse,” said Dr. Al-Aly. “We will continue following these patients to help us understand the ongoing impacts of the virus beyond the first six months after infection. We’re only a little over a year into this pandemic, so there may be consequences of long COVID-19 that are not yet visible.” 

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