COVID-19 deaths have topped 500,000, but many of the 10 million survivors are still suffering

COVID-19 smell test in Argentina
(Image credit: Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images)

The world hit two grim COVID-19 milestones Sunday: The number of confirmed deaths rocketed past 500,000 and the number of cases topped 10.1 million. The actual numbers are certainly higher. Half a million people dying from the new disease is self-evidently horrible, and those deaths have doubled in just seven weeks. But it's also troubling that the number of new cases is still rising — Sunday saw another 24-hour high, 189,000, according to the World Health Organization — because COVID-19 hits many survivors in long-lasting and little-understood ways.

COVID-19 attacks the lungs but also the heart, brain, pancreas, liver, kidney, and other organs. "In addition to respiratory distress, patients with COVID-19 can experience blood clotting disorders that can lead to strokes, and extreme inflammation that attacks multiple organ systems," Reuters reports. "The virus can also cause neurological complications that range from headache, dizziness, and loss of taste or smell to seizures and confusion. And recovery can be slow, incomplete, and costly, with a huge impact on quality of life."

Many patients with severe cases are still suffering from nightmarish delirium and hallucinations in the Intensive Care Unit, weeks after being released from the hospital, The New York Times reports. Dr. Igor Koralnik, chief of neuro-infectious diseases at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, reported in the journal Annals of Neurology that about half of previously hospitalized COVID-19 patients had neurological complications like dizziness, difficulty concentrating, absence of taste and smell, and physical and mental fatigue, and it's still unclear how long these effects last or if they're permanent.

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At the same time, "doctors increasingly are looking to the needs of patients who were not sick enough to require hospitalization, but are still suffering months after first becoming infected," Reuters reports. Oxford University's Dr. Helen Salisbury wrote Tuesday in the British Medical Journal that while most coronavirus infections resolve in two to three weeks, about 10 percent of patients experienced prolonged symptoms. For another data point, look at Sweden, the only Scandinavian country to eschew tough mitigation measures.

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The Swedish research firm Novus found that in a survey of coronavirus patients, 36 percent still reported being ill 10 weeks after contracting COVID-19.

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The U.S. has 125,803 confirmed COVID-19 deaths but 2.55 million cases.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.