Last night I awoke during a nightmare. We were in a COVID-19 cognitive feedback loop, where repeated infections were causing a progressive loss of intelligence which was making us more likely to undertake risky behavior. Sort of like the planet of the apes, but instead of the apes getting smarter, we were getting dumber.
This apocalyptic thinking was spurred by a New York Times report detailing healthy individuals enduring multiple infections because of waning natural and vaccine immunity.
And cognitive loss with COVID-19 is a real concern. The viruses’ infection of the brain’s olfactory centers causes frequent complaints of loss of smell in up to 60% of patients diagnosed with COVID-19, and from there it can spread to other areas of the brain. Approximately 30% of all cases treated for COVID-19 develop Long COVID. Over 75% of those diagnosed with a post-COVID condition have never been hospitalized. And approximately 70% of those who develop Long COVID have cognitive impairment, brain fog or memory difficulties.
If one is in the ICU and on a ventilator, there was a loss of 7 IQ points, equivalent to aging 10 years of life. Hospitalized patients not on a ventilator lost approximately 3.5 IQ points. If one is over the age of 60, a year after discharge from the hospital, there is almost a 3% chance of dementia and a 9.1% chance of mild cognitive decline. COVID-19 can also affect multiple organs of the body. Those patients hospitalized without ICU care had more than double the risk of cardiovascular disease during the first year after their acute infection, and even non-hospitalized patients still have almost a 1% (8.39/1000 cases) chance of dying from disease sequelae within the first six months after their acute illness.
The good news is that the long-term effects of COVID-19 are less likely to happen if you are vaccinated. At 90 days from infection, those vaccinated were one third as likely to have heart disease and one fifth as like to die, as those who were unvaccinated.
The use of masks also adds another layer of protection. And that includes those vaccine worshipers who feel one can do as one wishes and not get COVID, if vaccinated. With the new variants, vaccines reduce the chances of being hospitalized and dying, but do not provide adequate personal protection. Let’s face it, we need to have better protection than one-third or one-fifth as likely. Unfortunately, this also applies to those with “natural immunity.” Natural immunity varies greatly between individuals and wanes over time, especially in the elderly. The loss of natural immunity is even faster in those who have had a mild or asymptomatic infection.
With the highly infectious variants spreading in our communities, we need to wear high-quality KN95 or N95 masks. An unfitted N95 mask is six times more effective than a cloth mask. But in itself will not guarantee the wearer does not become infected. Masking is much more effective when everyone is masked. If an N95 mask reduces viral particles by 95%, double masking reduces particles by 99.75%. Masking prevents spread most effectively if the asymptomatic carrier wears the mask, preventing contamination of the environment. Unfortunately for everyone else, it is still possible for an aerosolized virus to infect through one’s eyes.
Thus, we must also change our environment. This means not investing COVID-19 money in resurfacing school tracks or staff expense accounts. Retail establishments should improve their air quality and provide N95 masks for their front-line workers. Curbside pick-up should be available for high-risk individuals, and a time is set aside in the morning for mask-only shopping for high-risk COVID-19 patrons.
Changing the way we live will not only result in the mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also lessen sickness from colds, flu and other threatening illnesses, such as Monkeypox. One does not want to spend $1000 on an airplane ticket for a long-needed and earned vacation and end up spending your time sick in a hotel bed. Public health is not just preventing death. It is maintaining a healthy public through a community effort that promotes the health of others.
A friend of mine in Australia stated that it appears the virus is starting to spread in her country, and she is concerned about becoming infected. I replied that in the United States, it’s not if, but how many times you have been infected. If the United States confronted the pandemic similar to Australia, we would have 900,000 fewer deaths and far fewer cases of Long COVID-19. So, let’s keep our immunity at the highest possible level with vaccination and boosters, mask up and home testing before gatherings. But above all respect the health of others. We are all in this together.
Kevin Kavanagh is a retired physician from Somerset, Kentucky, and chairman of Health Watch USA.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Is COVID making you dumb? Here's how you lose IQ points when infected