CARTHAGE, Mo. — Polio was once the most-feared disease in the U.S. during the early 1950s, causing 35,000 new cases of paralysis each year.
Growing up, Dr. John Venter, a pulmonologist for Mercy, lived through those polio outbreaks, when panicked American officials shut down public schools, community swimming pools and area movie theaters.
“It was bad,” he said of the disease. “It was a terrible thing, and I remember it quite well.”
America has been polio-free since 1979.
Polio, however, has nothing on COVID-19, a virus he calls a “horse of a different color.”
“I’ve been in private practice for 38 years, and I’ve seen over 100,000 ICU cases during that time, and I have never seen anything like this in a virus — ever,” he said.
Venter, who works at Mercy Hospital Carthage, has a key perspective on the virus. He deals directly with patients in their recovery phase, after they’ve been discharged from the hospital. However, some of these patients, called “long-termers,” are having lasting complications.
“These are the ones,” Venter said, “where (COVID-19) hangs on and hangs on and hangs on. It can take some people weeks or months to recover.”
For some who recover from COVID-19, symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pain, confusion, headaches and even hallucinations are among the growing number of issues survivors face following the illness. But some of the complications can be far more serious, with inflammation to the lungs, leading to shortness of breath; inflammation to the heart and muscle lining; and problems with the brain and nervous system, which could lead to strokes, he said. Those risks are particularly great in patients who required ventilators or intense oxygen therapy during their treatment.
“It can affect any body organ,” Venter said in a release. “If you don’t have to go on the ventilator but you’re still sick enough to be in the ICU and be on (oxygen) and a variety of different treatments, they also take a long time. They don’t just go on and resume their life as it was two weeks later. The ones that do that are really the ones that weren’t that sick to begin with and don’t develop some of the other later side effects, which can include blood clots, most commonly in the lungs.”
Venter recently worked with two patients who had recovered from the worst of their COVID-19 symptoms but later developed blood clots — even though they were receiving clot-prevention therapy.
“The virus is opportunistic, and it likes to attack every organ — and it does,” he said.
The long-term complications have struck fewer than 10% of the total cases he's personally seen, though he admits he doesn’t see that many. But the ages do vary, from older than 65 to the early 30s.
“We’re now trying to develop a ... biochemical grouping ... to figure out as early as we can which (patients) are the ones who might” begin showing some of these long-term complications, he said. “You just don’t see this sort of thing with people with bad influenza.”
The one thing all of his long-term patients with complications have in common is preexisting conditions — obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease or people who have had cancer at some point in the past, Venter said. These folks have to do everything they can to stay safe and to lessen their exposure to potential COVID-19 carriers.
The best way to do that? Masking, of course — which Venter supports 100% — along with social distancing and limiting public gatherings. Hygiene, or frequently washing your hands, is another positive step a person can take. "Very important” is how Venter described it. He personally washes his hands roughly 30 times a day.
“As we’ve opened society back up from the general shutdown, people have been sort of celebrating ... their newfound freedom. But this is not the time to do that,” he said. “You can’t just assume you can go about life with no restrictions and be safe because that’s not going to happen.”
The Joplin metropolitan area is currently a hot spot; in fact, Jasper County is No. 10 in the state for the number of new COVID-19 cases. McDonald County sits at No. 14, and Newton County follows at No. 16, Venter said.
But not everything is doom and gloom, he said. Several vaccines have reached Phase 3 trials, with massive manufacturing capabilities on standby should one or more of them prove effective.
“We’re quite a bit better off than we were” since early March, Venter said. “We’ve figured out more ways to treat it and that not everybody needs to go on ventilators. We’re finding things that are helping” in the fight against COVID-19. “And we’re working on some really interesting things that are out there that will ... be helpful and actually help modify the disease more than anything we’ve had to date.
“I see avenues for hope here,” he added.