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Long covid can be deadly, CDC study finds

Nurses check on a coronavirus patient in intensive care at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Arkansas last year. (Houston Cofield/Bloomberg)

A study released Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 3,500 Americans died of long-covid-related illness in the first 2½ years of the pandemic.

While those deaths represent a small fraction of the 1 million deaths from the coronavirus, they reinforce the danger of ignoring the lingering symptoms that many patients say their physicians have dismissed.

“A lot of people think of long covid as associated with long-term illness,” said Farida Ahmad, a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and lead author of the study. “This shows it can be a cause of death.”

What you need to know about the latest on long covid

While CDC data show that women are more likely than men to develop long covid, the study found that men accounted for a slightly higher percentage of long-covid deaths. Most of the documented long-covid deaths occurred in older people, with adults between 75 and 84 years old accounting for almost 30 percent of the deaths, closely followed by adults 85 and older.

Almost 80 percent of the deaths occurred among non-Hispanic Whites. The death rate was highest — at 15 in every 100,000 people — among American Indian and Alaska Native people, and lowest among Asians.

“This is yet another piece of evidence that long covid can be fatal,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University and chief of research and development at VA St. Louis Health Care System. “Lets not trivialize it or say it’s all in people’s heads.”

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The deaths were identified from information entered on death certificates in the National Vital Statistics System — a methodology that experts, including the study’s authors, cautioned could result in a large undercount.

“Death certificate data is fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity, something acknowledged by the CDC,” said Francesca Beaudoin, head of the Brown University School of Public Health’s Long Covid Initiative. In the case of long covid, those problems are compounded by varied definitions and terminology as well as clinicians’ familiarity with the condition, she said. There was no diagnostic code for long covid until October 2021.

Nonetheless, the study reflects the need for further research into long covid and potential treatments, experts said. As many as 1 in 13 adults, or 7.5 percent of the U.S. population, are experiencing symptoms that last three or more months after contracting the virus, according to the CDC.

The implications for people’s ability to work and perform other basic activities are yet to be fully understood. The federal government recognized long covid as a disability in July 2021. A Brookings Institution survey this year found that long covid could account for upward of 15 percent of unfilled jobs, with data suggesting that the condition could be keeping as many as 4 million people out of work.

To gain a fuller picture, the CDC in September added questions to an ongoing survey to assess how much long-term symptoms reduced participants’ ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Preliminary results show almost 25 percent of people with long covid report significant limitations on their activities.

The diagnosis is often associated with cognitive impairment, or brain fog, breathlessness, fatigue and coughing. But many patients report debilitating pain, racing heartbeats and severe neurological tremors. Others have symptoms linked to prolonged treatment on ventilators in intensive care, which can lead to extreme weakness and mental health disorders triggered by the experience.

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Benjamin Abramoff, director of the Post-COVID Assessment and Recovery Clinic at Penn Medicine, cautioned that it is difficult to draw conclusions from the study without additional details about the patients’ medical histories and the severity of their covid infections.

“A death at weeks following severe infection leading to covid pneumonia and hospitalization paints a different picture than deaths in non-hospitalized patients months following infection,” Abramoff said.

Some patient advocacy groups have been documenting suicides attributed to long covid.

“I doubt most coroners are even familiar with the definition of long covid, let alone the coding,” said Diana Güthe, who founded Survivor Corps. “Not a week goes by that I don’t hear of another suicide due to long covid, but I have yet to hear of a single one of those deaths labeled long covid.”

Al-Aly, who wrote an April 2021 paper that used Veterans Affairs data to demonstrate increased risk of death in the post-acute phase of covid, said the study should be interpreted in the context of its limitations.

‘We are in trouble’: Study raises alarm about impacts of long covid

The cause of death listed on a death certificate is usually documented as the closest event, Al-Aly said. If a 35-year-old dies of a heart attack or stroke three months after having acute covid, the death is not likely to be coded as long covid, he said.

The numbers of long-covid-related deaths will probably grow as medical education and use of long-covid codes and documentation increase, said Hannah Davis, co-founder of the Patient-Led Research Collaborative. She also noted that the highest number of deaths came in 2022.

“This communicates that the risk of long covid and deaths from long covid will increase as long as infections continue,” Davis said.

Christopher Rowland contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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