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Substantial CVD Risks, Burden Up to a Year After COVID-19

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People who have had COVID-19 have an increased risk for and 12-month burden of cardiovascular disease (CVD) that is substantial and spans an array of cardiovascular disorders, a deep dive into federal data suggests.

“I went into this thinking that this is most likely happening in people to start with who have a higher risk of cardiovascular disorders, smokers, people with high BMI, diabetes, but what we found is something different,” Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology. “It’s evident in people at high risk, but it was also as clear as the sun even in people who have no cardiovascular risk whatsoever.”

Rates were increased in younger adults, never smokers, White and Black people, males and females, he said. “So the risk confirmed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to spare almost no one.”

Although cardiovascular outcomes increased with the severity of the acute infection, the excess risks and burdens were also evident in those who never required hospitalization, a group that represents the majority of people with COVID-19, observed Al-Aly, who directs the Clinical Epidemiology Center at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System.

“This study is very important because it underscores not just the acute cardiovascular risk associated with COVID but the increased risk of chronic cardiovascular outcomes as well,” cardiologist C. Michael Gibson, MD, professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, told Medscape via email. “Given the number of patients in the US who have been infected with COVID, this could represent a significant chronic burden on the healthcare system, particularly as healthcare professionals leave the profession.”

For the study, the investigators used national VA databases to build a cohort of 153,760 veterans who were alive 30 days after testing positive for COVID-19 between March 1, 2020 and January 2021. They were compared with a contemporary cohort of 5.6 million veterans with no evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection and a historical cohort of 5.8 million veterans using the system in 2017 prior to the pandemic. Median follow-up was 347, 348, and 347 days, respectively.

As reported in Nature Medicine, the risk for a major adverse cardiovascular event, a composite of myocardial infarction, stroke, and all-cause mortality, was 4% higher in people who had been infected with COVID-19 than in those who had not.

“People say 4% is small, but actually it’s really, really big if you think about it in the context of the huge number of people who have had COVID-19 in the United States, and also globally,” Al-Aly said.

Compared with the contemporary control group, people who had COVID-19 had an increased risk (hazard ratio [HR]) and burden per 1000 people at 1 year for the following cardiovascular outcomes:

  • Stroke: HR, 1.52; burden, 4.03

  • Transient ischemic attack: HR, 1.49; burden, 1.84

  • Dysrhythmias: HR, 1.69; burden, 19.86

  • Ischemic heart disease: HR, 1.66; burden, 7.28

  • Heart failure: HR, 1.72; burden, 11.61

  • Non-ischemic cardiomyopathy: HR, 1.62; burden 3.56

  • Pulmonary embolism: HR, 2.93; burden, 5.47

  • Deep vein thrombosis: HR, 2.09; burden, 4.18

  • Pericarditis: HR, 1.85, burden, 0.98

  • Myocarditis: HR, 5.38; burden, 0.31

Recent reports have raised concerns about an association between COVID-19 vaccines and myocarditis and pericarditis, particularly in young males. Although very few of the participants were vaccinated prior to becoming infected, as vaccines were not yet widely available, the researchers performed two analyses censoring participants at the time of the first dose of any COVID-19 vaccine and adjusting for vaccination as a time-varying covariate.

The absolute numbers of myocarditis and pericarditis were still higher than the contemporary and historical cohorts. These numbers are much larger than those reported for myocarditis after vaccines, which are generally around 40 cases per 1 million people, observed Al-Aly.

The overall results were also consistent when compared with the historical control subjects.

“What we’re seeing in our report and others is that SARS-CoV-2 can leave a sort of scar or imprint on people, and some of these conditions are likely chronic conditions,” Al-Aly said. “So you’re going to have a generation of people who will bear the scar of COVID for their lifetime and I think that requires recognition and attention, so we’re aware of the magnitude of the problem and prepared to deal with it.”

With more than 76 million COVID-19 cases in the United States, that effort will likely have to be at the federal level, similar to President Joe Biden’s recent relaunch of the “Cancer Moonshot,” he added. “We need a greater and broader recognition at the federal level to try and recognize that when you have an earthquake, you don’t just deal with the earthquake when the earth is shaking, but you also need to deal with the aftermath.”

Gibson pointed out that this was a study of predominantly males and, thus, it’s unclear if the results can be extended to females. Nevertheless, he added, “long COVID may include outcomes beyond the central nervous system and we should educate patients about the risk of late cardiovascular outcomes.”

The authors also note the largely White, male cohort may limit generalizability of the findings. Other limitations include the possibility that some people may have had COVID-19 but were not tested, the datasets lacked information on cause of death, and possible residual confounding not accounted for in the adjusted analyses.

The research was funded by the US Department of Veterans Affairs and two American Society of Nephrology and Kidney Cure fellowship awards. The authors declare no competing interests. Gibson reports having no relevant conflicts of interest.

Nat Med. Published online February 7, 2022. Full text

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