Brady Feeney hadn’t even taken any classes at Indiana University when he fell ill with Covid-19. Three weeks after he moved to Bloomington, the incoming freshman was in the emergency room, struggling to breathe. Before his illness, Feeney had been a perfectly healthy teenager, with no preexisting conditions. In high school, he was a three-time all-state football player and won two state titles in Missouri. But after two weeks of “hell” fighting the virus, his mother said, his bloodwork indicated possible heart problems.
When SARS-CoV-2 first struck the United States, the medical community had two working assumptions: First, this was primarily a respiratory disease, and second, it seemed to hit older people much harder than younger people, with eight out of 10 confirmed Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. happening in adults 65 or older. But now, new research is challenging both of these assumptions.
Growing evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t only infect the lungs. It also affects the brain, kidneys, and heart. At first, doctors and researchers wondered if these issues beyond the lungs came just from the stress of having Covid-19 and being on a ventilator or life support. But increasingly, research indicates that the virus may be attacking other organs in the body directly—and this may be more common than previously thought, even among those who aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized. Some have suggested that Covid-19 is actually a blood vessel disease; the lungs are merely the way the virus enters the body, but from there it gets into the bloodstream and takes up residence in major organs, leaving patients with complex, long-lasting symptoms. Moreover, experts now believe, healthy young people can get mild cases of the coronavirus—even not knowing they were sick—that could leave them with lasting cardiovascular damage. Even those who seem to have recovered from the deadly respiratory illness are not free of its complications.
Heart failure could be “the next chapter” of the coronavirus illness, Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, interim chief of UCLA’s Division of Cardiology, recently argued in a co-authored editorial in the journal JAMA Cardiology. “Even if in younger adults Covid-19 may not be fatal, there still may be important health consequences,” he told me.
Myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, is usually a rare condition that can occur with viral infections, including the flu. But from the start of the pandemic, doctors were seeing heart inflammation among patients hospitalized with serious cases of Covid-19, Fonarow said: Early research showed that 20 to 30 percent of those hospitalized had heart issues. Left untreated, myocarditis can damage the heart and lead to heart attacks and arrhythmias, among other complications.