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A new study focuses on health outcomes after the initial infection that causes COVID-19. Kilito Chan/Getty Images
  • A recent study concludes that people with COVID-19 have an increased risk of developing a new health problem after the initial phase of the underlying infection.
  • The study reviewed data from more than 200,000 people who had diagnosed COVID-19.
  • While older people are more likely to have poor COVID-19 outcomes, the study suggests that younger people have a higher risk of developing new health conditions.

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With worldwide numbers of COVID-19 cases in decline since April, there has been more focus on life after the pandemic. Many researchers are interested in figuring out the long-term effects of a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

A new study, which appears in BMJ, examined the elevated risk of developing a new health condition following a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 cases constituted a pandemic more than 1 year ago, just over 164 million people have contracted the underlying virus, and 3.4 million people have died as a result.

Many with the infection are asymptomatic, but others have symptoms that can range from mild to severe. The virus has overwhelmed the healthcare systems of some countries, with hospital intensive care units filled beyond capacity due to the number of severely ill COVID-19 patients.

The symptoms of COVID-19 may clear up within a matter of weeks, but they can last much longer. Doctors sometimes refer to this issue as “long COVID” and the people who experience it as “long haulers.”

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The new retrospective study examined people who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 between January 1 and October 31, 2020. From 266,586 people with SARS-CoV-2 infections, the researchers examined the records of 193,113 participants who were diagnosed with COVID-19 and followed for at least 21 days.

The participants were aged 18–65, and according to the paper, each was part of a “large United States health plan.” To track the participants, the researchers took information from a national claims database, a laboratory testing database, and an inpatient hospital admissions database.

The researchers checked the participants’ records to see how many had been diagnosed with a new medical condition within 6 months of the “post-acute phase,” which they defined as a period beginning 3 weeks after the initial COVID-19 diagnosis.

After compiling this data, the study authors compared it with data from other groups who had been admitted to the hospital, including a group with a continuous healthcare plan in 2020 who did not have diagnosed COVID-19.

The researchers found that 14% of participants with COVID-19 had developed at least one new medical condition that required treatment following the acute phase of their SARS-CoV-2 infection.

A new health condition that occurs as a consequence of a previous illness is called a “sequela.” The authors write:

“An increased risk of specific clinical sequelae after the acute infection was noted across a range of organ systems, including cardiovascular, neurologic, kidney, respiratory, and mental health complications.”

The risk of developing a new condition was 5% higher among this group, compared with the control group who did not have diagnosed COVID-19.

The increased likelihood of experiencing a new medical condition following a SARS-CoV-2 infection was not limited to older people or people with preexisting conditions. Many younger people, including those with no previous history of health issues, developed a new condition after having COVID-19.

“Healthcare professionals should be alert to the possibility of long COVID in anyone with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. How to treat these longer-term consequences is now an urgent research priority,” Dr. Elaine Maxwell, a scientific advisor at the National Institute for Health Research, in London, wrote in an associated editorial.

The results of this study emphasize the importance of reducing the spread of COVID-19. While the most obvious result of doing so is a reduction in deaths and hospital admittances, it is also important to consider the longer-term effects on healthcare systems throughout the world.

“The greater risk for incident sequelae after the acute phase of SARS-CoV-2 infection is relevant for healthcare planning,” the study authors highlight.

In an interview with Medical News Today, Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, TN, shared his thoughts on the new study.

“This is a solid study that provides an estimate of how frequently such new symptoms occur: 14%,” Dr. Schaffner said. “This is a very high proportion of patients. There was a wide spectrum of symptoms involving numerous organ systems. The impact on the healthcare system of these many patients requiring medical care over a long period of time will be substantial.”

The researchers acknowledge that their study had some flaws. They were not able to include the risk of death, for example, due to the limitations of their databases.

Also, they note that they may have misclassified some participants. For example, while participants in the control group had no diagnosis of COVID-19, the illness may have been undiagnosed in some people, which has the potential to skew the data.

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