With pandemic-related hospitalizations once again climbing, an Oklahoma pulmonary specialist is reiterating that getting discharged does not automatically mean an all clear from COVID-19’s long-term effects.
“Once you’ve got this, it is still really, really bad,” Dr. Brent Brown said.
Brown is the chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at the University of Oklahoma Medical School and has been treating lung patients since 1984.
Speaking at a recent panel organized by the Healthy Oklahoma Coalition, Brown said the lung damage recovery rates among COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization are among the slowest he’s ever seen from viral or bacterial causes.
According to numbers released Friday by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the three-day average for the state’s hospitals is 308 COVID-19 cases, an increase of almost 200 in just two weeks. Those patients are predominantly unvaccinated adults.
Although a normal person’s internal repair efforts start the same in response to COVID-19 as they would to other pulmonary issues, the average recovery time for COVID-19 induced lung damage is more than double what it is for damages caused by other pathogens, a physiological anomaly that is still unexplained.
“We don’t completely understand all the cell signal microbiology just yet,” Brown said.
That extended recovery time is often even longer for patients who require a ventilator, a mask or a nose flow of oxygen while hospitalized. The extended recovery time has also shown to impact the efficacy of another external oxygen option for critically ill patients.
Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, is a process when the blood is pumped outside of the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide from the blood and sends oxygen-laced blood back to the body. It is used in critical care cases as a way to bypass the heart and lungs, but is only available at three hospitals across the state.
Although ECMO does provide a way to buy some recovery time for the heart and lungs, Brown cautioned that it does not always heal the pulmonary damage caused by the virus.
“ECMO is not a panacea to this illness,” Brown said. “Because of the slowness of this condition to get better, we’ve found many, many patients…who’ve been on the ECMO machine for months and do not get better, which leaves you with the dilemma of ‘What do you do next?’”
Along with a slow recovery time for the lungs, Brown said he is also seeing a host of other complications connected to COVID-19 hospitalizations, including blood clotting issues and increased rates of kidney damage due to inflammation caused by the medications used to treat the virus.
“It is also a problem that some of the people who get out don’t seem to make a very good recovery,” Brown said. “Their body is just so stressed that new complications develop, such as new infections because their immune system is stunned from steroids.”