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Doctors finding lung damage in COVID-19 patients, even those without symptoms

“This is going to be plaguing us for a long time to come."

NEW ORLEANS — We often talk about the number of coronavirus cases and the number of people who lost their lives to the disease, but doctors say new studies are highlighting a big health problem that is not talked about enough. 

You may remember our story in September 2020 on Robert Lara. He is a Harvey man who survived months in the hospital battling COVID-19. He now needs a lung transplant.

“Some people just catch a cold and it's over with, you know? And some people it's just out to get 'em. And I was one of them,” said Robert Lara, 57, in September as he came home from months in the hospital.

New studies and observations show there are many pandemic survivors just like Robert. Tulane pulmonary and critical care physician, Dr. Joshua Denson, has been treating patients in the ICU since the pandemic began. He is seeing more asthma and lung fibrosis.

“These patients have very scarred down lungs and that's the ones that are either tough to get off the ventilator, or may require oxygen for prolonged periods of time, and we don't know what to treat them with,” said Dr. Joshua Denson, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Tulane.

Texas trauma surgeon, Dr. Brittany Bankhead-Kendall, recently shared X-rays of COVID lung destruction, saying it is worse than smokers' lungs. It's even showing up in former patients who say they feel fine, and those who got the virus with no symptoms.

“We've seen people with lung scarring that never got sick and so we've seen people that have bad lung damage even if they never went to the doctor or hospital,” Dr. Denson said. 

When asked if those patients will ever get better, he replied, “We just don't know. Pulmonary fibrosis is a pretty detrimental disease with a very high mortality rate.”

Another study out of the U.K. finds nearly a third of hospitalized COVID patients who recover, are readmitted with in five months, and one in eight dies. Many from respiratory disease.

“We're seeing people that end up in the ICU for weeks, even months. And if you're in the ICU for weeks or months, there's no way you're not going to have a very long and protracted recovery,” he said.

Dr. Denson says a special lung clinic in New York opened after the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, and is still treating people. The COVID-19 pandemic may be the same, except across every city in the country.

“This is going to be plaguing us for a long time to come,” Dr. Denson said.

It is his belief that people who push their hearts and lungs to get stronger through regular exercise, will have better outcomes if they get sick with COVID-19.

RELATED: As ICU demand increases, COVID survivor details harsh reality of recovery

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