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The Lasting Effects of COVID-19 on Patients Who Need Ventilators

April 28, 2020

With about one in four COVID-19 patients needing a ventilator to help them breathe, the long-term effects of the potentially lethal virus on the body, especially the lungs, heart and kidney, are still largely unknown. Dr. Daniel Gottschall, vice president of medical affairs for Hartford HealthCare’s Fairfield region and St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, said the current focus is getting patients through the infection but their future medical needs will likely require varying degrees of medical attention. “Like any illness, the long-term results (of COVID-19) really depend on the severity of the illness,” he said. “For the patient with a mild illness who does not require hospitalization, they should have no long-term effects.” But others, including the one in four requiring the mechanical pumping of oxygen from a ventilator to survive, could need pulmonary rehabilitation or other medical care for an extended period of time. The patients sickest with COVID-19 are often placed in medically-induced comas or medically paralyzed so their muscles do not consume any oxygen. When treating and monitoring the progression of the virus, Dr. Gottschall said, these patients’ lungs may be permanently damaged. He described a healthy lung as “bright and airy and fluffy.” The severe lung injuries resulting from COVID-19, he countered, can leave a patient’s lungs rigid and unable to move effectively to breathe. “When the lungs are less soft and permeable, it makes it more difficult for them to do their biological job,” he said. The inefficient flow of oxygen to the body as a result of COVID-19 infection can also have lasting effects on other organs in the body, he continued. A paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology estimated the virus’ potential impact on the heart can include causing acute myocardial injury, arrhythmia and other serious conditions. The risk of dangerous results for those who have preexisting heart conditions and then contract COVID-19 are also higher. This assertion is supported by a study from Wuhan, China, the origin of the pandemic, which determined that 19 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had heart damage after recovering from the virus. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Experts are also watching for the long-term effects of COVID-19 on other vital organs such as the kidneys, liver and brain. “There is always that concern about whether there was oxygen being deprived to the brain,” leading to possible neurological problems,” Dr. Gottschall said. Not feeling well? Call your healthcare provider for guidance and try to avoid going directly to an emergency department or urgent care center, as this could increase the chances of the disease spreading. Need to see your doctor? New Patient? For more information about Hartford HealthCare virtual health visits, click here. Click here to schedule a virtual visit with a Hartford HealthCare-GoHealth Urgent care doctor. Stay with Hartford HealthCare for everything you need to know about the coronavirus threat. Click here for information updated daily. Questions? Call our 24-hour hotline (860.972.8100 or, toll-free, 833.621.0600).  Get text alerts by texting 31996 with COVID19 in the message field.