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More than half of COVID-19 patients scanned in study show heart abnormalities, researchers say

More than half of the COVID-19 patients involved in a new study aimed at observing how the virus may impact the heart were found to have some form of cardiovascular damage.

More than 1,200 patients, ranging in age from 52 to 71, from 69 countries participated in the study. Overall, 667 patients (55%) showed abnormalities in their scan. Around one in seven showed evidence of severe dysfunction likely to have an impact on their survival and recovery.

Scientists around the world have been racing to better understand how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, impacts the body. Worrying reports have indicated that the virus may also be capable of inflicting long-lasting damage to the lungs, nervous system, kidneys and possibly even trigger abnormal blood clotting in some people.

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“Damage to the heart is known to occur in severe flu, but we were surprised to see so many patients with damage to their heart with COVID-19 and so many patients with severe dysfunction. We now need to understand the exact mechanism of this damage, whether it is reversible and what the long-term consequences of Covid-19 infection are on the heart,” study co-author Professor Marc Dweck said.

The international study was published June 18 in European Heart Journal - Cardiovascular Imaging and was conducted by researchers from the British Heart Foundation’s Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Edinburgh.

Most of the patients had confirmed COVID-19 cases (813), while 298 were deemed probable cases. The rest of the patients were assumed to have been infected. All of the patients had an echocardiogram, a type of ultrasound scan for the heart, between April 3 and 20.

Sixty percent of the scans were performed in a critical care setting, which was defined as an ICU unit or emergency department. The remainder were done in general medicine settings, cardiology, respiratory and dedicated COVID-19 wards. Approximately 54% of the patients had severe COVID-19 symptoms, the study said.

Patients with abnormal scans were more likely to be older and have certain pre-existing heart conditions. After the researchers excluded patients with pre-existing heart disease, the proportion of abnormal scans and those with severe cardiac disease was similar, suggesting that the cardiac abnormalities were related to COVID-19, researchers said.

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In the study, one in three patients who received a scan had their treatment changed as a result. Researchers said the findings suggest that heart scans could prove crucial for identifying patients who may benefit from additional treatments in their COVID-19 recovery and prevent potential long-term damage to their heart.

“Covid-19 is a complex, multisystem disease which can have profound effects on many parts of the body, including the heart. Many doctors have been hesitant to order echocardiograms for patients with Covid-19 because it’s an added procedure which involves close contact with patients. Our work shows that these scans are important – they improved the treatment for a third of patients who received them,” Dweck said.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.