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'The Virus Infects The Heart Itself': Cardiologist Says COVID-19 Linked To Variety Of Cardiovascular Ailments

(CBS Local) -- The spread of COVID-19 around the world has become the biggest story of 2020.

Each month, doctors and medical professionals are learning more about the virus's impact on short-term and long-term health.  Dr. Jennifer Haythe is a cardiologist at Columbia University's Irving Medical Center in New York and is one of the many doctors who was on the frontlines when COVID-19 first started spreading through the country.

Dr. Haythe spends her days researching the heart and explains how this virus is impacting the heart in several different ways.

"Early on, we started to see manifestations including acute heart failure syndromes, which we often see with the flu and other viruses," said Dr. Haythe in an interview with CBS Local's DJ Sixsmith. "There were patients that had a lot of arrhythmias. We started to see irritable heart pictures where people were having fast heart rates and potentially lethal arrythmias. We also saw myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart. The virus infects the heart itself, causing inflammation. We saw pretty much everything you could see with other viruses and infections. It was all new to us because this was a new disease. We treated those patients the way we treat other patients with those syndromes and we had a lot of success in many cases."

Dr. Haythe noted that stress cardiomyopathy has plagued some people, given everything going on in the world right now. The Columbia University says her biggest concern during the peak of coronavirus in New York was hospital bed availability.

"Our biggest concern was that the hospitals in New York were so overrun with COVID that people were so scared to come to the hospital for anything, unless they felt like they really needed to be there," said Dr. Haythe. "The rate of heart attacks presented to the hospital dropped dramatically and we were saying to ourselves where are these people. Our concern was that they were either dying at home and didn't want to come to the hospital or that they ignored their symptoms and tried to tough it out so they didn't have to go to the emergency room. We were constantly trying to tell people that we want you to come to the hospital, even if you are worried about COVID. In fact, we learned very quickly that once people started wearing PPE and were isolated and protected well, the rate of transmission was incredibly low."

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While coronavirus infection and death rates have gotten better in certain parts of the country, the problems surrounding the virus are not going away any time soon.

"We know that for the most part the people who get very sick from COVID are older people. Obviously, that doesn't mean that younger people can't get very sick from COVID as we're seeing and I saw with my own eyes. But, it's less common and the flu can do the same thing," said Dr. Haythe in an interview with CBS Local's DJ Sixsmith. "I've seen young people need heart transplants from getting the flu. It's not something we've never seen before. The stories are obviously frightening but I think we need to keep in perspective that in general, younger people without a lot of co-morbidities do okay and it's generally our older relatives and family that we need to keep protected."

"This is a virus that we've only known for seven months," said Dr. Haythe. "We need more time. I think having a unified response to keeping people safe is really important. I'm not recommending or telling my patients that they need to be locked up in their homes for the next two years, but I think people need to use common sense. Wear a mask, it's not going to last forever. Most people who get COVID are going to be okay and I think we're going to have a vaccine. This is going to get better and the vaccine may not prevent everyone from getting COVID ever, it may look like the flu vaccine."

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