The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a threat to all people, but those with heart disease especially need to be on high alert. That’s because while COVID-19 is a highly contagious respiratory illness, anyone with coronary heart disease or hypertension—especially anyone over age 50 with these conditions—is more likely to be infected and develop more severe symptoms from the virus.
“COVID-19 among older adults has a very high rate of morbidity (meaning a lot of people get sick) and mortality (meaning a lot of people die). It appears that people with existing heart disease are in a particularly high-risk group for suffering complications from COVID-19,” says UNC cardiologist Christopher Kelly, MD.
In places where there have been a lot of cases of COVID-19, such as China and New York, among the patients suffering the worst complications of the virus, including death, the prevalence of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease is very high among the patients suffering the worst complications of the virus, including death, Dr. Kelly says.
“That’s partially because the patients are older, but it appears that baseline heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes are also independent risk factors for more severe disease and death,” Dr. Kelly says. “As a result, older adults with chronic heart disease are at very high risk of complications and need to be extremely cautious.”
COVID-19 Can Cause Heart Problems
Along with increased respiratory dangers for people with heart disease, COVID-19 causes heart complications.
“In addition to the tremendous strain on the heart that the pneumonia (a potential outcome of COVID-19) can cause, coronavirus can directly affect the heart, causing inflammation of the heart and heart failure as well as clotting disorders that can increase the risk of heart attack,” Dr. Kelly says.
It is challenging even for someone in good health to deal with those complications. “If you’re not in good health, then the risk of those complications causing death is much higher,” Dr. Kelly says.
Dr. Kelly says experts still don’t know exactly how COVID-19 adversely affects the heart—just that it does. “This mechanism is still uncertain,” he says, “and as a result, the best treatments are unknown. Many different therapies are being tested, but none has proven clearly effective. So the best treatment remains prevention.”
Heart Patients Need to Take Extra Safety Precautions
People with heart conditions need to use extra safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Kelly says.
“They need to be extremely cautious, only leaving the house when it’s absolutely essential,” Dr. Kelly says. “If you can, have your groceries delivered to you so you don’t have to go to the store.”
The coronavirus can be transmitted on surfaces and packages. To reduce this risk, Dr. Kelly recommends leaving groceries that are shelf-stable in a garage, back patio or somewhere outside your living space for two days, if possible. Experts think this waiting period can reduce the amount of virus present on the items.
“This significantly reduces the viral load on the surfaces,” Dr. Kelly says. “Whenever you’re taking something from outside the house, like a package or groceries, wear gloves and try to wipe it down with a bleach wipe or Clorox wipe before you handle it. Just assume that everything from the outside world is contaminated.”
Heart Patients Should Continue to Maintain Good Health
People with heart conditions should make sure they continue to take care of their conditions while practicing physical distancing.
“What I don’t want people to do because of their fear of getting infected is not get refills of their medication and not follow up with their doctors. If they allow their chronic medical conditions to become uncontrolled, that alone can land them in the hospital,” Dr. Kelly says.
Use mail-order delivery from your pharmacy and get a 90-day supply of your medications. Also take advantage of virtual care options that most providers offer. Virtual care allows you to stay at home and communicate with your healthcare providers through a phone, tablet or computer. It means your healthcare provider can continue to support your health even if he or she does not see you in the office.
“Anything as simple as a telephone call with your doctor to an actual video visit where we can virtually examine you is an option, and you need to use them because if you go a month without tending to your medical problems, that could be just as dangerous as getting infected,” Dr. Kelly says.
If you’re concerned about your health, especially if you’re having chest pain or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately.
“If you stay at home during a heart attack, the risk to your life is tremendous, and you’re much better off coming into the hospital,” Dr. Kelly says. “We take great precautions in the emergency room and in the hospital to separate patients with coronavirus from the rest of the patients, so we’ll take great care to protect you from infection.”
For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.