Top heart specialist warns we are facing a long Covid ‘tsunami’ after the Omicron outbreak ends, with a tidal wave of heart disease and strokes, as well as a myriad of other debilitating symptoms.
Cardiologist Professor Harvey White fears New Zealanders are too jaded about the risk of Omicron infection, which has been described as mild for most people.
In a letter to the editor of today’s Herald, White – who is director of cardiovascular research at Auckland DHB – says even “mild” initial infections can lead to serious long-lasting Covid symptoms, including a risk higher in heart attacks and strokes.
He fears the long-term complications of Covid will put a strain on our healthcare system and urges people to boost themselves and try to avoid catching the virus.
Long Covid covers a range of symptoms, from brain fog and thought disorders to memory loss, anxiety and fatigue, heart disease and stroke.
“Between 10 and 30% of people infected with Covid-19 may develop long Covid,” White writes, adding that a tidal wave of heart disease is also on the way.
“Omicron can attack the heart acutely, but in the long term after recovery, blood pressure may increase, heart rhythms may become abnormal, and decreased pumping function of the heart with heart failure and shortness of breath may occur.”
White has yet to see a rise in Covid-related heart disease at work, but he expects it to be imminent. A recent US study of 153,000 veterans found that the risk of heart disease increased significantly in the year following an infection, even in mild cases.
It could be due to secondary reasons like stress and people delaying medical care, but could also be directly due to Covid, White said. Those who had Covid had a 63% increased risk of heart attack and a 52% increased risk of stroke.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s Covid expert, said earlier this month that she had seen no evidence that Omicron caused a shorter Covid than previous variants.
Long Covid is defined as symptoms occurring three months after the initial infection, White told the Herald.
“Omicron wasn’t discovered until November, so we’ve barely had three months to collect data – but all indications are that it’s likely to be the same [as previous variants].”
There were 14,940 confirmed Covid cases on Sunday alone, taking New Zealand’s total to 85,667 since the start of the pandemic, according to the Department of Health.
Extrapolating from the veterans’ study, White said if a million New Zealanders caught Omicron, he would expect 300 to 900 more heart attacks and 400 to 1,200 more strokes within a year. following their infection.
This was based on estimates of 10-30% of Covid cases developing long Covid. And some of those heart attacks and strokes are said to occur in people whose infection was “mild,” meaning they didn’t go to hospital for their original infection.
Covid could cause damage to organs throughout the body, including the heart and blood vessels. It could also make the immune system go haywire and attack itself, creating “autoantibodies,” and could reactivate underlying viral illnesses that were caught earlier in life, White said.
Even the fact that there are now more than 300 people hospitalized with Omicron showed that catching the virus was “not trivial”.
People could help lessen the tidal wave by trying to avoid infection and getting vaccinated and boosted, which offered good protection against the long Covid.
But White was concerned about a large group of eligible people who had not taken booster shots, as well as those who had not received a shot.
“People are not revaccinated, boosted at the highest rate. They are not paying attention, in my opinion, to mass gatherings and wearing masks and so on.
“To see this explosion of Covid cases and still tell people it’s mild, I think that’s wrong. Individually, we really need to avoid it.”
He also said anyone who developed heart symptoms after catching Omicron should see their GP straight away.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health said the long-term physiological and psychological effects of Covid-19 were not yet known.
“However, new evidence regarding the long Covid-19 continues to evolve around the world and the ministry continues to monitor developments very closely. Part of this evidence includes the long-term health impacts of the long Covid-19. 19.”
The ministry had issued guidelines regarding the rehabilitation of people after acute Covid infection which would be updated to include long Covid.
It had also completed a comprehensive literature review and planned to set up an expert advisory group to advise on what the duration of Covid meant for New Zealand.
And the department had funded an Impacts of Covid-19 in Aotearoa study at Victoria University of Wellington to understand the “lived experiences” of those affected by Covid-19, including long-standing Covid.
“The results of the study will be used to advise health officials.”
Meanwhile, Dr David Welch of the Center of Computational Evolution said the idea that Omicron infection was inevitable “so we should just keep going” was incorrect and could be dangerous to the healthcare system and the economy.
“The majority can avoid infection during this wave of Omicron and we should all do everything we reasonably can to avoid infection.
“The actions we take help us stop getting sick and protect our healthcare system and our economy.”
Welch said in hard-hit places, about 50% of people avoided infection and 80% in places where the virus was better controlled.
“The actions we take over the next three to five weeks will determine whether or not the outbreak is manageable.”