CLEVELAND (WJW) — As the coronavirus pandemic continues, medical experts are learning more about what first was thought to be a respiratory illness.
“I think that we have a big puzzle that we need to solve and this is one puzzle piece,” said Dr. Eiran Gorodeski, a cardiologist at University Hospitals.
While evidence has shown COVID-19 can harm other organs in the body, two new studies published this week in the journal JAMA Cardiology show the disease could have lasting impacts on the heart.
“We do know that COVID-19 illness can affect the heart, but it is by no means common within the broad spectrum of those that are infected with the virus,” said Dr. Daniel Cantillon, a cardiologist and associate section head of cardiac electrophysiology and pacing at the Cleveland Clinic.
One German study found that among 100 middle-aged adults who recently recovered from coronavirus, 78 showed some type of cardiac involvement in MRI scans and 60 percent had ongoing inflammation in the heart.
Most of the patients, 67, recovered at home, with the severity of their illness ranging from some being asymptomatic to having moderate symptoms.
“Anytime we do research in small numbers of people, this needs to be replicated in larger studies,” said Gorodeski.
Both doctors say there’s no reason for alarm.
“It’s important that the public contextualizes this and doesn’t translate that to think that everybody that gets infected with COVID-19 is going to have permanent heart damage,” said Cantillon.
But the study does still leave questions.
“Why does coronavirus have this impact on the heart? Is it because the virus itself affects the heart, or does it trigger the immune system in such a way that it causes inflammation in the heart?” asked Gorodeski. “Does this mean that it will just resolve on its own in months and years to come or is it ultimately cause a permanent effect on the heart?”
The doctors say they have not seen many cases of heart inflammation from COVID-19 while noting it can also be caused by other viruses.
“Viral inflammation and scarring of the heart is by no means unique to COVID-19,” said Cantillon. He also noted there may be more risk to those patients that have underlying heart conditions or are more susceptible to heart illness.
Another study found that in 39 autopsy cases from Germany of older patients, aged 78 to 89, 16 had the virus in their heart tissue but did not show signs of unusual inflammation in the heart. The researchers said it’s not clear what that means.
The doctors agree after seeing the results of both studies, more research is needed in this area.
“Studies like this are a sobering reminder for us that the pandemic is gonna likely have a very long tail in terms of public health implications,” said Cantillon.
But he says they do hope it will help them understand how to better treat their patients.
“I’m confident that we’re gonna continue to learn more how to effectively treat people that have active inflammation and prevent severe illness.”