Dec. 1 (UPI) — Survivors of severe COVID-19 may have increased risk of death within 12 months of initial infection compared to people who never had the coronavirus, a study published Wednesday by the journal Frontiers in Medicine found.
People age 65 and younger who survived their initial infection, despite suffering serious illness, are more than three times likely to die over the next year than those who never had the virus, the data showed.
Adults age 65 and older who survived severe COVID-19 have more than double a higher risk for death in the ensuing year compared to uninfected people in the same age group, the researchers said.
And severe COVID-19 survivors of all ages are overall 2 1/2 times more likely to die over the next 12 months than uninfected people.
Only 20% of people with severe COVID-19 patients who die do so as a result of typical health complications associated with the virus, such as blood clots or lung failure, researchers said.
“We now know that there is a substantial risk of dying from what would likely be considered to be an unrecognized complication of COVID-19,” co-author Arch Mainous said in a press release.
“We need to be even more vigilant in decreasing severe episodes of COVID-19,” said Mainous, professor and vice chair for research in community health and family medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
The study suggests that severe COVID-19 may significantly damage long-term health and highlights the importance of preventing severe disease through vaccination, he and his colleagues said.
The virus can cause severe symptoms and death for vulnerable people, particularly older adults and those with certain underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the pandemic has continued, greater attention has been placed on so-called “long-haul” COVID-19, or persistent symptoms of the virus such as severe fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive decline and depression that can last for months.
A study Mainous and his colleagues published in September found that people who recover from serious illness from the virus were more likely to be hospitalized for other reasons over the next six months than those uninfected.
For this analysis, the researchers reviewed the electronic health records for 13,638 people who underwent a PCR test for COVID-19 within the University of Florida health system during the first six months of 2020.
Among these patients, 178 experienced severe COVID-19 and 246 mild or moderate illness from the virus, while the rest tested negative, the researchers said.
Of the total study population, 2,686 people, or about 20%, died over the next 12 months, including 93, or 52%, of those who suffered severe COVID-19.
About 6% of the severe COVID-19 patients who died following recovery did so as a result of heart-related complications, while about 7% died due to lung or respiratory problems.
As these deaths occurred long after the initial infection passed, they may never have been linked to the virus by the patients’ families or doctors, researchers said.
The study did not list the other causes of death for the infected patients, though the researchers say their findings indicate that patients experienced an overall decline in health that left them vulnerable to various ailments.
People who recovered from mild or moderate COVID-19 did not have a significantly increased risk for death compared with uninfected, which highlights the benefits of vaccination, given that currently available shots have been shown to limit serious symptoms, the researchers said.
“Taking your chances and hoping for successful treatment in the hospital doesn’t convey the full picture of the impact of COVID-19,” Mainous said.
“Our recommendation at this point is to use preventive measures, such as vaccination, to prevent severe episodes of COVID-19,” he said.