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How COVID-19 Affects the Body

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Laura Zabriskie

March 26, 2020
*This is a rapidly changing situation. This article was written on March 26, 2020. For the most up-to-date information, visit the CDC website at*

The coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and the illness it causes (COVID-19) is becoming a larger part of our lives every day. While there is much we still don’t know, we are learning more about how the virus affects the body. Theodore Bailey, MD, JD, MA, Chief, Division of Infectious Diseases at GBMC, describes what we know so far about the symptoms of COVID-19.

Most cases are mild and will cause fever, coughing, sore throat, body aches, and fatigue. There is no known medical treatment. Fortunately, most cases remain mild and for those, it is best for people to self-isolate and recover at home. Severe cases may experience shortness of breath with associated lung injury, liver inflammation, and irregular rhythms of the heart and require intense medical support in a hospital setting.

Dr. Bailey also reports seeing negative impacts on the immune system. Lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that protects the body from foreign substances, are significantly suppressed in many COVID-19 patients. At the same time, other areas of the immune system can become over-activated, potentially causing collateral damage to other organs.

The only thing hospitals can do for patients in this stage of the disease is provide supportive care, often in the form of supplemental oxygen or the use of a ventilator. There are clinical trials happening to search for medications that may help fight the virus; however, the results of these trials are coming from very small samples and it is too early to justify particular treatments as effective and safe. To ensure scientific accuracy, these medications would have to be tested on a larger scale and over a significantly longer period of time. Right now, it is impossible to tell whether these medications are truly effective treatments for COVID-19 or whether their timing simply coincides with when symptoms would naturally subside on their own.

The same principle applies to verifying other symptoms like the loss of taste and smell. “These symptoms have been reported, so we need to give them credence,” says Dr. Bailey, “but they are being seen in uncontrolled environments and the samples sizes are too small to provide solid medical evidence that they are not caused from another medical issue.”

There is a very real risk that the medical system will become overwhelmed and could run out of resources to treat patients if there is a spike in viruses. According to Dr. Bailey, COVID-19 has a “very explosive growth rate,” that could create the situation in Maryland that we are currently seeing in Italy and New York City. The World Health Organization (WHO) puts out daily reports, which can be viewed here, to track the global impact of the virus. In the past 24 hours alone, there have been 9,750 new confirmed cases and 202 deaths from COVID-19.

To slow this growth and flatten the curve, it is critical to reduce the amount of new cases coming in daily. The best way to do this is to practice social distancing and good hand hygiene. If more cases come in that the medical system can support, the death rate will rise. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers are working around the clock to prevent this from happening, but they need the public’s help to stop the spread of this disease and save lives. Click here to learn more about social distancing.

*Click here for more information about the coronavirus (COVID-19)*
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