It's not just the coronavirus death toll

A COVID patient.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Much of our conversation about COVID-19 centers on numbers: How many infected? How many tested? How many dead? But there's an important number we aren't discussing because we can't yet know what it is: How many people who survive COVID-19 will have long-term damage from the virus?

Consider a new study from Germany published Tuesday. Researchers compared heart MRIs from 100 people who'd recovered from COVID-19 to those of 100 demographically similar people who'd never been infected. The average age of the recovered patients was just 49, and two thirds had relatively mild cases that never required hospitalization. Still, three quarters of the COVID-19 group were found to have structural changes in their hearts, including "evidence of a biomarker signaling cardiac injury typically found after a heart attack." Researchers don't know how permanent these changes are yet, but they're worried, according to Stat News.

This is also far from the only reason to think COVID-19, unlike the flu, may have lasting effects. Reports this week from USA Today and NBC News profile "long-haulers" with serious symptoms lingering for months. Runner's World has the account of Clare Kane, who went from half-marathon training to days of chest pain after a 20-minute jog. Lung damage has been repeatedly found in asymptomatic patients, including children.

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Many have argued against significantly disrupting ordinary life in the name of controlling COVID-19's spread because, they note, "everyone dies," and this disease is disproportionately likely to claim the lives of elderly people close to death already. But while it's true we will all die, we will not all live for months or even years with debilitating cardiovascular conditions. Absent COVID-19, we will not all have scar tissue in our lungs, shortening our breath and curtailing our physical activity.

And those effects of COVID-19 matter even though we can't measure them yet. I'm not likely to die if I'm infected, but losing my ability to go for a run or a long walk with my kids would be a bereavement in its own right.

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