For many patients, 'recovery' from COVID-19 is just the beginning

Study shows lingering financial, medical, emotional toll of illness mistakenly cast as an "either-or"

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ROCHESTER, Minn. -- For skeptics of COVID-19 -- and their numbers are fewer, these days -- the illness may become serious for some, but it is mostly survivable. COVID-19 is a virus, they will tell you, with a fatality rate well below 2%. You either recover like the 99%, or you don't.

It's a low-calorie argument.

It overlooks how Covid has been chewing through health care workers and shutting down businesses that will not succeed until the public feels safe. It side-steps the enormous losses of even a 2% death rate across tens of millions of Americans.

It also assumes that the lives of Minnesota's 227,000 COVID patients now off isolation have picked up right where the patients left off prior to the pandemic.

But have they? With 15,000 Minnesotans now having checked out of the hospital, what happens to those who have fought off COVID-19 ... you know, when they get home? What happens to the even larger number who've recovered without ever going to the hospital?


As it turns out, thanks to a recent paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine, we know the after-effects of a COVID-19 hospitalization can fall on a broad spectrum, and offer plenty of reasons to avoid getting sick in the first place. The authors, a team from the University of Michigan, interviewed 488 covid patients beginning at a point 60 days following discharge.

The project looked at patients treated at 38 Michigan-based hospitals between March and July, then recorded the state of their post-COVID-19 lives. Over a third of those studied were experiencing ongoing personal disability 60 days following their bout with COVID-19. Many were still coughing (159), 65 of the recovering patients still could not taste or smell food, and the post-Covid problems extended into their daily financial and functional well-being as well.

Two months after "recovery," 12% of patients surveyed in the Michigan study could not care for themselves, 23% were short of breath while climbing stairs, 39% hadn't gotten back to normal activities, and 40% were unable to work their jobs.

Some had lost their jobs while out sick, but most were out of work because of their health.

Of those who still had jobs, one in four needed to cut back their hours, over a third had taken a financial hit, and one in ten had seen their savings wiped out by illness and hospitalization. Almost half of the patients contacted said they were emotionally shaken by the experience.

“These data suggest that the burden of COVID-19 extends far beyond the hospital and far beyond health,” Dr. Vineet Chopra said in a statement. Chopra was lead author of the study and is chief of hospital medicine at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center. “The mental, financial and physical tolls of this disease among survivors," he said, "appear substantial.”

Minnesota health officials have voiced a similar concern as well. After all, we have been so busy trying to stop COVID-19, we haven't begun to investigate what it will have left in its wake.

"The effects of this virus on people who may not even have what they consider severe bouts of the illness can be long-lasting," as state health commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a recent press call. "Puzzling phenomena can appear weeks or longer down the way, sometimes for months at a time."


"We know everyone responds differently," said state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann. "Some people resume their sense of taste and smell, while for others [the loss of those senses] does last much longer. Some people will be what they are referring to as long haulers with this, and we just don't know who those people are. No one knows who you will be, so that's why we are encouraging people to take it seriously."

"We are still exploring the long-term effects of this," said epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm on the same call. "I know of cases who are on 100% oxygen after having had a mild illness," he said. "This is one more reason why you don't want to get infected with this virus."

Paul John Scott is the health correspondent for NewsMD and the Forum News Service. He is a novelist and was an award winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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