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Study: COVID increases risk of stroke

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Nov 8, 2021

Kyle Green, Associated Press

Ann Enderle, R.N., checks on a COVID-19 patient in the Medical Intensive care unit at St. Luke's Boise Medical Center in Boise, Idaho on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

Most people think of COVID-19 as a virus that attacks the lungs, causing difficulty breathing, coughing and the loss of taste or smell, but more and more healthcare workers are reporting another organ the virus is affecting — the brain.

Researchers who have studied the impact on the brain reported their findings in The Lancet medical journal.

The study, which is one of the largest of its kind, shows in the week following a COVID-19 diagnosis, the risk of stroke caused by a blood clot multiplied three to six times in those infected with the virus. Risk of a heart attack was also reported at an increase of three to eight times.

“We are seeing strokes in people who have been infected with COVID-19 and we’re seeing it in all of our hospitals including Ogden Regional, St. Mark’s, Brigham City Community Hospital and Cache Valley,” said Dr. Matthew Grantz, stroke representative for MountainStar Healthcare. “COVID-19 can cause an inflammatory response in the body that can lead to thickening of the blood which can lead to clotting. The reason it’s happening in younger people isn’t fully understood.”

Grantz said, across the board, older people are the typical population at higher risk for strokes, but with COVID-19, the age seems to be trending lower.

“We’re seeing more patients in the under-50-year-old population,” he said. “We’ve had some patients in the ICU where they are so sick with COVID they’re barely holding on. Sometimes the stroke will push them over the edge. Other times they’ll come in with stroke symptoms and we’ll discover they have COVID.”

Nationwide, Grantz said there has been a 2.5% increase among COVID-19 patients having a stroke. Sometimes that doesn’t occur for one to three weeks after diagnosis. Up to 9% of patients with COVID are having more heart attacks, he said.

Meghan Murri, a critical care director for MountainStar, said she has treated a lot of patients who have had COVID-19 or post-COVID-19 stroke complications.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing it more and more, even in unlikely patient populations like younger individuals 30-40 years old,” she said. “Holding the hand of a dying 36-year-old who makes it out of the hospital from COVID just to have a stroke soon after is not something that anyone should have to go through in their healthcare career.”

Murri said she decided to become an ICU nurse after losing her sister to a stroke at the age of 25.

“The way the ICU nurses took care of not only my sister, but also my family, was ultimately what fostered me making the decision to become and ICU nurse,” she said. “Because I have been on the other side as a patient family member, I always try to understand and have compassion for what the patient and their family are going through.”

Grantz said with COVID-19, it’s hard to predict who might have a stroke or heart attack, so even previously healthy individuals with no prior risk factors can suffer.

“It’s just one more fall out from COVID that we’re dealing with,” he said.

Grantz said it’s important for people to watch for symptoms and get to the hospital as quickly as possible.

“With a stroke, time is brain,” he said. “The longer you go with the clot, the more brain tissue will be injured.”

People having a stroke can present with balance and vision problems, a droopy face, weakness in the arms and trouble speaking.

Heart attack symptoms can include pain in the neck, jaw or back, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, pain in one or both arms or shoulders and feeling weak or light-headed.

Murri and Grantz said the past year-and-a-half has been heartbreaking — and both are asking the public to do their part by social distancing, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.

“As ICU nurses, we are used to dealing with death, but this level is unimaginable. The wave of COVID deaths I’ve seen this year, after the vaccine became available, is arguably worse than what we experiences last winter when we thought we saw cases peak,” Murri said. “I wish I could show people what it’s been like. Maybe then they would understand why we are begging the public to get vaccinated.”

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