Most people assume that people living with spinal cord injuries are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 due the respiratory nature of the disease, but evidence from a research analysis published last week by the North American SCI Consortium (NASCIC) casts doubt on that theory. The research cites multiple peer-reviewed studies on SCI and COVID-19 conducted globally– most prior to the vaccine – which document the overall impact the virus has on people living with spinal cord injuries.
Many individuals with SCI have weakness or paralysis in the abdominal and trunk muscles resulting in weaker lungs and a decreased ability to produce a cough, which can lead to chronic respiratory infections. There is also evidence that people with SCI have weaker immune systems and are at a higher risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, conditions which can lead to severe COVID-19.
However, the initial studies suggest:
- People with SCI are not at a higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19; they are only at higher risk of exposure if they require daily assistance from outside caregivers and cannot isolate when needed.
- Initial studies also suggest that individuals with SCI usually do not present with typical symptoms of COVID-19. In fact, the most frequent symptom among people with SCI is a fever, which is often initially misdiagnosed as caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI), rather than COVID-19.
- Cough, if it develops at all, is usually not severe.
- Age appears to be an important risk factor, as well as the same secondary conditions that are risk factors for the general population.
To sum up, the severity of symptoms and disease course of COVID-19 in people with SCI, so far, is not as bad as initially expected.
Research involving COVID-19 and its effect on the spinal cord injury community is ongoing and the NASCIC will continue to monitor and share information as it becomes available.