Well over half a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are learning more about the virus that was initially believed to be only a respiratory illness. Over time, it’s become clear that COVID-19 attacks far more than just the lungs, and new research indicates that it can leave lasting heart damage, even in formerly healthy people who have recovered from the initial symptoms.
Two new studies, both from Germany, examined the effects of COVID-19 on the heart, with one focusing on recovered patients and the other on older victims of the virus.
The first study, published Monday in JAMA Cardiology, found that three-quarters of recovered COVID-19 patients were left with structural changes to their hearts, even two months later.
The researchers examined cardiac MRIs from 100 recovered COVID-19 patients between the ages of 45 to 53, and compared them to MRIs of similar people who did not contract the virus. Most of the COVID-19 patients had recovered at home, while 33 had to be hospitalized at some point in their illness.
Of the 100 COVID-19 patients, 78 had structural changes to their hearts. Within that group, 76 had a biomarker that is typically found in patients who had a heart attack, and 60 had heart inflammation, called myocarditis. The patients were all “mostly healthy … prior to their illness,” the researchers said.
“The patients and ourselves were both surprised by the intensity and prevalence of these findings, and that they were still very pronounced even though the original illness had been by then already a few weeks away,” study co-author Dr. Valentina Puntmann, a consultant physician, cardiologist and clinical pharmacologist at University Hospital Frankfurt in Germany, told UPI.
The second study, also published in JAMA Cardiology, looked at autopsy reports from 39 COVID-19 victims between 78 and 89 years old who died at the start of the pandemic. The researchers found that the virus had infected the heart in 41 percent of the patients.
“We see signs of viral replication in those that are heavily infected,” study co-author Dirk Westermann, a cardiologist at the University Heart and Vascular Centre in Hamburg, told Stat. “We don’t know the long-term consequences of the changes in gene expression yet. I know from other diseases that it’s obviously not good to have that increased level of inflammation.”
On Sunday, Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez confirmed that he won’t yet start the new MLB season because he is dealing with myocarditis, the heart inflammation found in the first study, in the months after he contracted COVID-19. Rodriguez is currently waiting on further MRI results to see if he can play.
“It’s been hard, weird. First, I got the COVID, feel all the symptoms and everything, at some point thinking that’s how bad it was the first four days. And then get here, and now that I have this, I was hoping that I get ready and go for the season as quick as I can,” Rodriguez told WEEI. “Now I’ve got to get a week off, wait for the results of the next MRI. I would say it’s been weird, really weird for me.”