Another warning from 1918 Spanish flu for COVID-19: ‘Survival does not mean that individuals fully recovered’

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There’s still so much we don’t know.

The 2020 coronavirus and 1918 Spanish influenza are two highly contagious respiratory diseases that spread around the world in months, and lacked a vaccine when they first occurred. People couldn’t understand why they affected some people more than others. For the 1918 flu, healthier, younger people were most at risk. In 2020, it’s older people with preexisting conditions.

But there is one cautionary note from the 1918 flu that has resonance in 2020, and it could reinvigorate social-distancing and mask-wearing behavior among those people who are feeling the fatigue of disruption to their daily lives: “While 1918 was deadly, most that contracted the virus survived. But survival does not mean that individuals fully recovered.”

‘The range of lingering health effects for those that contract COVID-19 and survive remains to be seen.’

— Economists Brian Beach, Karen Clay and Martin Saavedra in a working paper analyzing impact of the 1918 flu

That’s according to a review of literature and studies on the 1918 flu by economists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “The evidence suggests that, in 1918, those that survived the initial infection faced an elevated mortality risk and some physiological conditions never fully healed.”

“The first lesson from 1918 is that the health effects were large and diffuse. We may never know the true mortality consequences of 1918 because of incomplete or inaccurate record keeping, issues that also undermine our ability to quantify the impact of COVID-19,” they wrote. “The range of lingering health effects for those that contract COVID-19 and survive remains to be seen.”

In fact, a recent study of 60 COVID-19 patients published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Lancet this month found that 55% of patients in one study were still displaying neurological symptoms during follow-up visits three months later, including confusion and difficulty concentrating, as well as headaches, loss of taste and/or smell, mood changes and insomnia.

Younger COVID-19 patients who were otherwise healthy are suffering blood clots and strokes. Many “long-haulers” — COVID-19 patients who have continued showing symptoms for months after the initial infection passed — report neurological problems including confusion, difficulty concentrating, headaches, extreme fatigue, mood changes, insomnia, plus loss of taste and/or smell.

Some 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the 1918 Spanish flu. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide, with about 675,000 deaths occurring in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 has now killed at least 774,299 people worldwide, and 170,548 in the U.S., Johns Hopkins University says.

The Moneyist: My coworkers cough and sneeze, don’t wear masks, and talk about their parties. I’m worried about coronavirus. What do I do?

As of Tuesday, the U.S. still has the world’s highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases (5,443,162) and deaths. Worldwide, confirmed cases are now at 21,901,102. COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system, but health professionals say it also appears to affect the cardiovascular system, causing blood clots among some patients, even young patients, and can also impact organs.

A review of cases published last March in the medical journal JAMA Cardiology concluded: “Coronavirus disease 2019 is associated with a high inflammatory burden that can induce vascular inflammation, myocarditis, and cardiac arrhythmias.” It added, “Cardiovascular risk factors and conditions should be judiciously controlled per evidence-based guidelines.”

‘Based on early clinical reports, significant cardiovascular complications with COVID-19 infection are expected.’

— A study on long-term effects of COVID-19 published in JAMA Cardiology in March

COVID-19 may induce new cardiac issues and/or exacerbate underlying ones, the researchers said. “During most influenza epidemics, more patients die of cardiovascular causes than pneumonia-influenza causes. Given the high inflammatory burden of COVID-19, and based on early clinical reports, significant cardiovascular complications with COVID-19 infection are expected.”

During the 1918 influenza pandemic as with COVID-19, wealthier people had a better chance of survival: Individuals of moderate and higher economic status had a mortality rate of 0.38%, versus 0.52% for those of lower economic status and 1% for those who were “very poor,” economists Brian Beach, Karen Clay and Martin Saavedra wrote in the paper published this week.

“Compared to individuals who lived in one-room apartments, individuals who lived in two-room, three-room, and four-room apartments had 34%, 41%, and 56% lower mortality, respectively,” they added. Though the 1918 pandemic is forever associated with Spain, this strain of H1N1 was discovered earlier in Germany, France, the U.K. and the U.S.

The Dow Jones Industrial Index DJIA, -0.30% lost ground on Monday, while the S&P 500 SPX, +0.27% edged upward and the Nasdaq Composite COMP, +1.00% notched a triple-digit gain as investors hope for progress on the vaccine front and a fresh round of unemployment benefits in Round 2 of Congress’s pandemic relief program.

AstraZeneca AZN, +2.30%, in combination with Oxford University; BioNTech SE BNTX, +2.36% and partner Pfizer PFE, +0.76% ; GlaxoSmithKline GSK, +1.43% Johnson & Johnson JNJ, +0.50% ; Merck & Co. MERK, -1.51% ; Moderna MRNA, +0.88% ; and Sanofi SAN, -1.33% are among those are currently working toward COVID-19 vaccines.