While the Biden administration rushes to put the COVID-19 pandemic in the nation’s rear-view mirror ahead of the midterm elections, its premature decision to declare the pandemic “over” threatens to further erode Republican support for prevention efforts. But even more importantly, it hides a looming crisis of the administration’s own making.
Coming down with COVID-19 can increase an individual’s risk of developing a range of non-communicable diseases. Heightened risk for stroke, heart disease, lung damage, brain damage, mental health disorders, muscle and skeletal disorders, and diabetes can each result from a COVID-19 infection.
Even mild cases of COVID-19 substantially increase people’s risk of heart attack and stroke. These risks appear to decrease over time but can remain elevated for a year or more. A great deal remains unknown about the risks over the longer term.
COVID-19 damages the lungs and causes injury to tiny air sacs called alveoli, epithelial cells and endothelial cells. Long-term lung recovery is possible but takes time and depends on the severity of the disease, a person’s preexisting condition, and the speed with which the patient gets treatment and the quality of that treatment.
The ability of COVID-19 to infiltrate the central nervous system means that it can have serious effects on the brain, including reducing brain size and changing its structure. Emerging studies have found links between COVID-19 infection and psychosis as well as other serious issues, such as cognitive deficits, depression and PTSD. One new study from the University of Oxford, with a sample size of more than 1 million people, found “increased risk for dementia, epilepsy, psychosis and cognitive deficit (or brain fog) two years after contracting COVID,” with brain fog a particular problem in adults.
Clinical expressions of COVID-19 commonly include a number of musculoskeletal symptoms, such as aches, pain, stiffness, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness. In rarer cases, some COVID-19 patients experience longer term musculoskeletal disorders, including autoimmune myositis, rheumatoid arthritis and “COVID toes.”
The American Diabetes Association notes that multiple studies suggest adults and youth face heightened diabetes risk after COVID-19 infection. Those who are diagnosed with diabetes, meanwhile, have greater odds of serious complications from COVID-19.
This is without even talking about the estimated $2.6 trillion in costs that Americans suffering from “long COVID” face.
Health spending in America already accounts for one-fifth of the nation’s overall economy, with factors like rising fees, more intense use of expensive services, and population growth and aging driving costs that have led the United States to spend far more than any other country in the world. Before the emergence of COVID-19, the World Health Organization attributed 71% of all deaths globally to noncommunicable diseases, which killed 41 million people around the globe annually, including more than 15 million between the ages of 30 and 69. In low-income countries alone, these diseases were projected to cost more than $20 trillion over 20 years. The fact is that chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease often require ongoing treatment that is expensive.
COVID-19 tests already cost $12 a pop at corner drugstores. Many pharmacies don’t even carry quality KN95 masks, which offer protection but are too costly for many to buy.
In dropping even minimal public health precautions and promoting the commercialization of therapeutic medicines and diagnostics, the Biden administration’s so-called public health leaders are allowing COVID-19 infections to run rampant in America because they say we now have the necessary tools to live with COVID-19. Yet, the disease still mutates, and many Americans don’t use those tools amid a deafening absence of governmental messaging on the importance of vaccination, boosting, isolation, masking, ventilation, social distance and the use of antiviral therapy.
The downstream health risks that Americans will continue to shoulder come at a time when four out of five diabetics go into debt to purchase insulin, and a less severe heart attack can cost in the neighborhood of $760,000.
Ignoring the true cost of letting COVID-19 proliferate only compounds the risk that repeated infections will pose to people’s physical health — and ultimately the nation’s fiscal health. If you thought health care in America was bad now in terms of access, quality and cost, just wait 20 years. Historians will remember the moment that politicians turned a blind eye and let health care costs explode.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph Harris is Associate Professor of sociology at Boston University. He specializes in health systems research on the politics of healthcare access and infectious disease response. Follow him on Twitter @JosephHarrisBU. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
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