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A severe case of COVID-19 significantly raises death risk in following year, UF study shows

Woman in mask hands out bottles to people in line
Associated Press

The research points to a range of causes of death that can strike in the year after a patient is hospitalized.

New research shows that people who are hospitalized with severe illness due to COVID-19 are more than twice as likely to die in the following year compared to people who did not contract the virus.

In this conversation, the study's lead author, Arch Mainous, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida, says the research points to the need for vaccination to prevent people from getting severe COVID-19 in the first place.

Tell me about the research that you've done prior to this.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
University of Florida
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

One of the earlier studies that we did that led up to this one on mortality was we looked at people who had had COVID, and found that those who had severe COVID — that means they had been hospitalized — were much more likely over the ensuing six months after recovery to be hospitalized. And these people were being hospitalized for conditions that weren't COVID: strokes and heart attacks and things like that.

So in this case study, you looked at the risk of mortality after having severe COVID. What did you find?

We looked at the risk of mortality or death over the next 12 months and discovered that people who had severe COVID, much like with the people who were more likely to be hospitalized, were much more likely to die. Now they're dying within 12 months. Now this is this is quite staggering, because these are not being listed as COVID deaths. But even more so it's staggering because when we think about risks of future disease and things like that, when we think of like heart disease, for example, we follow them out for 10 years. So we have a 10 year risk. This is all happening within the next year. So this is actually quite, quite scary when you think about it that, that an outcome of severe COVID is that you're much more likely to die.

How much more likely to die? Can you quantify that risk?

Yeah, so it's 2½ times more likely to die in the next 12 months. ... But let me put that into a different number. So their risk is increased 233%. Now, if we look at at people under 65 who have had severe COVID, they're 3⅓ times likely to die.

And why were people dying?

Well, that's one thing that has really fascinated us. So when we look at the reasons why some people go into the hospital with COVID, (there are) some things that we would think should follow from COVID — cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, even clotting diseases. What we found when people died, it turns out that among the people who had severe COVID, only about a third fell into those three main categories of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and clotting. And so they were dying of a lot of things that are also out there that we don't really usually associate with COVID. So it might be something related to kidneys, it might be something else. That actually is very, very important, because it makes us think that the damage done by COVID is so significant that it's affecting your entire body.

How do you know that these deaths aren’t random — such as being hit by a car — or something that really wasn't related?

When we looked at the likelihood of people dying, we control for two things. We control for comorbidities, which means the other problems they might have. We know that age is a pretty strong predictor of death, unfortunately. But that's actually adjusted for in our analysis, just like the number of comorbidities.

There's a lot of misinformation out there, a lot of people who have decided to forgo a vaccine and say things like, "I'll take my chances." What do you think about that kind of argument when you have done this sort of research that shows that the risk of dying is twice as high for people who get severe COVID?

I think the value of this study — and the one about hospitalization — both point to the importance of prevention. How do we keep people from having a severe COVID episode? Well, we have things like social distancing and wearing masks, and those are very important. And they can keep people from getting COVID. But the only really tried and true preventive strategy we have to keep you from having severe COVID is vaccination.

So, I think it's important that we think about, well, if you want to take your chances, you're really not just taking your chances of having a severe COVID experience. You're not really taking your chances of, "Oh, I'll be in the hospital and I'll try this treatment." It's, "Hey, you'll be in the hospital, you'll get out and then you're at greater risk of dying in the next year," which I think is a is a pretty dramatic addition to the risk in the implications of having COVID.

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I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.