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‘It’s not just dying’: Doctors warn some COVID-19 survivors face dangerous complications

Brett Dahlberg
Dr. Chris Burke says he has seen strokes that appear to be linked to COVID-19 in patients much younger than he would expect.

The vast majority of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 have survived the disease, but a growing body of evidence is finding that survival does not guarantee a smooth recovery.

“It’s not just dying that you need to be concerned about,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bruckel, a cardiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center who has treated COVID-19 patients.

In Monroe County, about 95% of the people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus have survived, according to figures from the county public health department. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control’s data put that number at about 97%.

Bruckel said some of those survivors are developing severe problems with blood clots that block the flow of blood and the transfer of oxygen inside the body.

“The clots form in sites where there’s no injury. You could have a clot that forms in the heart artery and leads to a heart attack, or you could have a blood clot that forms inside the heart itself that breaks off and leads to a stroke,” he said.

Dr. Chris Burke, the chair of neurology at Rochester General Hospital, said he’s seen strokes that appear to be linked to COVID-19 in patients much younger than he’d expect -- some in their 30s and 40s.

“Some of these patients have no risk factors, or very little in the way of risk factors -- people you wouldn’t expect to be having a stroke,” Burke said.

He’s seen other neurological complications, too. In some patients, “the brain is not working right, they’re confused, they’re not as awake and alert,” said Burke. Because the disease is so new, he said, it’s not clear how long those problems will last.

Those complications are most common in older adults, said Burke, but doctors across the country have also found neurological problems in pediatric survivors of COVID-19.

The body’s own immune response is to blame for some of these complications, Burke said.

“The magic of your immune system is that it dials up and begins to create an inflammatory condition that’s basically your body fighting off the infection,” he said. “What happens with COVID-19 is that the attack process becomes dysregulated. It’s an overwhelming response.”

As a result, the body ends up attacking its own nervous system.

Burke and Bruckel both said they think some people with symptoms of heart attacks and strokes have been avoiding hospitals during the pandemic. They said people should not suffer through those symptoms at home, and that hospitals are safe places to get treatment.

“We take the utmost precaution. You’re safe to seek care at any of the hospitals in the region,” Bruckel said.

He and other doctors said the risk of cardiac and nervous system complications from coronavirus infection show that leaders should not just consider death rates when they’re making determinations about reopening businesses and public spaces.

“The more we live as if there’s nothing going on, as if there’s no pandemic, the more likely we are to see spikes again, and the more likely we are to need to lock down again,” said Bruckel.

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