Here are 8 reasons COVID is so much worse than the skeptics think
America's first COVID death was on February 29 of this year, roughly 200 days ago. In that time, more than 200,000 Americans have died of the disease, the equivalent of 1,000 people a day.
That's how many people would have died if between February 29 and today three fully-loaded jumbo jets had crashed every single day, even on weekends, for 200 days.
Now that we've passed this grim milestone and are still losing around 1,000 people a day, and Donald Trump acknowledged—bragged—to Bob Woodward last winter that he knew COVID is both deadly and airborne, many Trump-lovers are starting to look for factual information about the virus.
With this handy list, you can help them out.
Here are the facts about this virus with links to the various scientific sources, already well-known to most of the rest of the world but mostly absent from Fox News. I'm writing this as a reporter, not a physician or scientist, so it's written mostly in plain English.*
A group of researchers in Germany did follow-up studies on people who were, on median, 71 days out from their diagnosis, with a mean age of 49 years old and who considered themselves recovered from the infection.
They reported in the American Medical Association's peer-reviewed journal JAMA Cardiology that 78 percent of "recovered" patients had heart damage that was visible on MRIs and other scanning technologies.
Even more alarming, fully 60 percent still—months after their illness—had "ongoing myocardial inflammation" (inflammation of the heart muscle).
Because the virus has never before infected humans and we're less than a year into it, nobody knows if this heart damage and ongoing heart inflammation will be lifelong or if people will heal from it at some point.
As colleges started pulling their athletes back onto campus late this summer, Ohio State University found 26 students—football, soccer, lacrosse, basketball and track—who tested positive for COVID.
Fourteen never had any symptoms and a dozen had "mild" symptoms. None had been so sick they required hospitalization or even oxygen or drug support. All believed they had fully recovered, some as many as 53 days out from their positive test.
Out of an abundance of caution—and some curiosity—the university asked those 26 elite athletes to pop themselves into an MRI machine so they could check out their hearts.
Fully 15 percent of them had ongoing "signs of inflammation to the heart muscle" (myocarditis).
Over at Penn State, the football team's doctor, Wayne Sebastianelli, said of the Big Ten athletes who'd tested positive for COVID that "30 to roughly 35 percent of their heart muscles" showed evidence of myocarditis. "[W]e really just don't know what to do with it right now," he added.
The New York Times pulled together a startling collection of stories of athletes who have been devastated by COVID infections.
For example, take the story of former college football player and current Ironman triathlete Ben O'Donnell:
"[H]e needed a walker just to go out to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. In his first attempt to exercise, two days after he left the hospital, he walked for seven minutes at a speed of 1.2 miles per hour using supplemental oxygen. He has been trying to add a minute of time, and a bit of speed, each day."
About half of symptomatic COVID patients report "headaches, confusion and delirium," the New York Times reports, suggesting the virus is acting on the brain, according to new research published in the neurological journal Brain.
Another study reported in the British medical journal Lancet found that 62 percent of symptomatic COVID patients studied "presented with a cerebrovascular [blood vessels of the brain] event." It also found that of the COVID patients British doctors had evaluated and referred to an inter-physician database between April 2 and April 26, 2020, 74 percent "had an ischemic stroke" and 12 percent had "an intracerebral hemorrhage" (bleeding in the brain).
Of the patients who hadn't had a stroke or brain-bleed, 59 percent "presented with altered mental status [that] fulfilled the clinical case definitions for psychiatric diagnoses as classified by the notifying psychiatrist or neuropsychiatrist," and 92 percent of those "were new diagnoses."
These included "new-onset psychosis" (43 percent), "neurocognitive (dementia-like) syndrome" (26 percent), and an "affective [mood-distorting] disorder" (17 percent).
Of the patients with an "altered mental status," 49 percent were younger than 60 and 51 percent were over 60.
New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli reached out to University of California, San Diego, neuroscientist Alysson Muotri to get her take on that study and other, previous research showing that COVID can infect the brain and cause brain-cell (synapse) death through a mechanism that still isn't fully understood.
"Days after infection," Dr. Muotri said, "we already see a dramatic reduction in the amount of synapses. We don't know yet if that is reversible or not."
Mandavilli noted that COVID "exploits the brain cells' machinery to multiply, but doesn't destroy them. Instead, it chokes off oxygen to adjacent cells, causing them to wither and die."
And it appears to be worse for women and children. As 11-year-old Aviva Epstein noted, two months after recovering from a mild COVID infection, "I couldn't eat anything." She described her new life: "I would run to the garbage, gag, and spit out anything I would eat. I would eat pasta. I love it. It tasted gross, like rotten beef or rotten pork."
Michael Rothschild of Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine notes that nobody knows if about a third of patients who've lost their sense of smell will ever recover.
Reporter Melissa Russo with New York's Channel 4 NBC affiliate noted, "He says ordinarily, about two thirds of patients will recover fully, but because COVID-19 is new, it's difficult to predict how long these symptoms will last and if the rate of recovery will be the same."
One of the more common problems people experience after recovering from even a mild case of COVID is deep, debilitating fatigue.
The COVID virus is a variation on the original SARS coronavirus that erupted back in 2003 and the SARS-type MERS virus that ravaged the Middle East (27 countries) starting in 2012. (It is not an influenza or "common cold" virus.)
Dr. Rashid Chotani, vice president of medical affairs at CareLife Medical in Fairfax, Virginia, said in an interview with health writer Sarah Ellis that in previous studies of SARS and MERS survivors, they sometimes showed signs of fatigue and muscle weakness for years afterward.
"What we know is that SARS survivors had poorer exercise capacity and health status and had chronic fatigue symptoms 3.5 years after being diagnosed," he told Ellis. "So, one possible long-term effect is chronic fatigue syndrome."
Fiona Lowenstein, an American writer who wrote about her experience for the New York Times and started an online support group for COVID survivors, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reporters, "I thought I had fully recovered a couple of weeks ago, then I relapsed into some old symptoms, chills and sweats. And this intense feeling of fatigue."
She added, "It almost feels like I've been hit by a truck at 4:00 pm each day."
She's not alone. Deep, debilitating, "crushing" fatigue is one of the most common conditions experienced by people who never really recovered and thus call themselves "long-haulers." After writing about her own difficult recovery, Lowenstein said, "My inbox was flooded."
Physicians who specialize in feet (podiatrists) have reported extensively on a condition apparently caused by the tendency of COVID to inflame even the tiniest of blood vessels while increasing levels of clotting factors in the body.
The symptoms of "COVID toe" include "finger/toe cyanosis [blue skin], skin bullae [large blisters] and dry gangrene [green or black skin due to low blood supply] to the digits" along with a loss of sensation or excruciating pain, apparently depending on how extensively the virus attacks the nerves.
Canadian ER physician Dr. Dina Kulik told Canadian TV, "It looks like frostbite [with] red or purple or brown discoloration around the feet, could be on the underside of the foot, the top of the foot, on the toes, and sometimes there's cracked or dry looking skin as well."
In the press, most of the attention went to children getting "COVID toes," although it shows up in adults as well. For example, Broadway actor Nick Cordero—the 41-year-old father of a 1-year-old child and an athlete in excellent shape—first had his leg amputated in the hospital when what appeared to be such a COVID-caused inflammation and clots blocked blood to it, and subsequently died from his COVID infection.
A study published July 16, 2020, in the medical journal Radiology, titled "Lower Extremity Arterial Thrombosis Associated with COVID-19 Is Characterized by Greater Thrombus Burden and Increased Rate of Amputation and Death," compared hospitalized COVID patients with blood clots in the blood vessels (thrombosis) of their legs to those who had leg clots but didn't have COVID.
The study concluded, "All patients with COVID-19 infection undergoing lower extremity CTA had at least one lower extremity clot (100%) while only 69% of controls had clots (p=0.02)."
Even worse, it noted, "Adjusted for history of peripheral vascular disease, death or limb amputation was more common in patients with COVID-19 infection (odds ratio 25, p<0.001)."
The conclusion of the study's abstract noted that "the incidence of death and amputation is significantly more common in COVID-19 patients…"
There are several stages to a COVID infection. The first and most common involves the throat, nose and respiratory tract with the familiar cough and sore throat, along with a loss of smell.
About 10 percent to 15 percent of people who get these "mild-to-moderate" symptoms go onto a more "severe" form of the disease, and of the people who are "severe," about 15 percent to 20 percent become "critical."
Often there is a period between the mild symptoms and the severe symptoms where the body has largely fought off the disease, but then, after a few days, it returns with a roar. The transition from mild to severe can happen "very, very quickly," according to an expert from WHO.
The CDC says the median time from a COVID-caused pneumonia diagnosis to death is typically 13 days.
While more than 1,000 health care workers in America have died from COVID, a recent study of such workers who tested positive for the infection found that about half (44 percent) had such light or nonexistent symptoms that they didn't realize they had a disease, a statistic that generally reflects the asymptomatic percentage of infected people among normal, healthy adults.
However, asymptomatic people with COVID can still pass the disease along to others. And infected children—without symptoms—may be even more contagious than adults, according to data published in the American Medical Association's journal JAMA Pediatrics.
"Here, we report that replication of SARS-CoV-2 in older children leads to similar levels of viral nucleic acid as adults," the researchers reported, "but significantly greater amounts of viral nucleic acid are detected in children younger than 5 years."
America is just beginning a giant experiment in how effectively children can contract and spread the disease—usually with no apparent symptoms—but this peer-reviewed and published research should give pause.
"Thus," they conclude their study, "young children can potentially be important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 spread in the general population, as has been demonstrated with respiratory syncytial virus [which causes common colds], where children with high viral loads are more likely to transmit."
Most countries have engaged one of two quite different strategies to deal with COVID.
Countries like Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and most of Europe have chosen to try to rid themselves of the virus, using extensive testing and contact tracing, as well as prevention measures for social distancing, mask-wearing, and lockdowns.
With a few notable exceptions, poorer countries lacking high-quality health care infrastructure or resources have done little to nothing to stop or slow the spread of the disease and have put much stock in the hope that, unlike the common cold coronavirus, this particular type of SARS coronavirus doesn't mutate in ways that make vaccines ineffective.
Because the Trump administration has been all over the map on these two strategies, embracing a testing/tracing strategy in March and early April, then shifting course rapidly in the direction of not taking COVID as seriously after the April 7 revelation that Black, Hispanic and Native Americans were dying at higher rates than white Americans.
While on the campaign trail in June, Trump even suggested America "slow the testing down" so the case rates would appear lower. And he has repeatedly underestimated the dangers of the virus, dismissed science-backed prevention methods such as mask-wearing in favor of dangerous and unproven ones, claimed the virus would "miraculously" disappear in warm weather, and admitted to "playing it down" when he knew it was "deadly."
If America doesn't shut down the virus fairly quickly, it may become so widespread that a testing and contact-tracing strategy is impossible, leaving the next president with an unrecoverable disaster to deal with. Nobody knows for sure how many cases it'll take to bring this about, but the UK going into a second lockdown because they flirted with herd immunity for several months should be a warning.
*To be technically accurate, SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus, and COVID-19 is the umbrella name for the various manifestations of its infection (i.e., the disease). For simplicity, I've combined them in this article under the popularly-understood rubric of "COVID."
Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of The Hidden History of American Oligarchy and more than 30 other books in print. His most recent project is a science podcast called The Science Revolution. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.