A COVID-19 patient lies in a hospital bed with a doctor standing nearby.

What’s Become of Those Hospitalized With COVID?

Remember when some people said "COVID-19 isn't any worse than the flu"? Well, it turns out that in one way, they may have been right.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious physical and mental health toll on both healthcare workers and the general public — but how are previously hospitalized COVID-19 patients faring? A new study from the University of Toronto investigated the physical and mental health of hospitalized severe COVID-19 patients, finding their health outcomes to be similar to those of patients hospitalized for the flu or sepsis.

The study was led by Kieran Quinn, an assistant professor in U of T’s Department of Medicine and staff physician in the Sinai Health System, and was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

More than three years on from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have a better sense of the long-term outcomes for COVID patients. Some people who were previously infected with COVID-19 now have persisting symptoms known as long COVID, while others have made full recoveries after being infected multiple times. But what are the health outcomes for those who had infections severe enough to warrant hospitalization?

Scientists have long known that patients who survive hospitalization due to other illnesses — including flu and sepsis — can end up developing long-term symptoms similar to those of long COVID. The team behind the present study was interested in learning how these long-term outcomes differ with COVID-19, or whether long COVID is similar to what we’ve already seen with other critical illnesses.

To learn more, the team carried out a population-based study of COVID-19 patients in Ontario using information from health databases. The patients included in the study were adults who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 between April 1, 2020 and Oct. 31, 2021, and all were followed up on one year after their hospitalization.

The team compared this data with historical records of patients who had been hospitalized for influenza or sepsis (two severe infectious illnesses) between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 25, 2019. They also included a cohort of sepsis patients who were hospitalized during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, there were not enough flu cases during the pandemic to also include recent flu patients in the study.

For all illnesses, the researchers excluded patients who died during or following hospitalization.

Interestingly, their study revealed that COVID-19 patients don’t have considerably worse outcomes than those hospitalized for sepsis or influenza. In particular, COVID-19 patients did not have a greater risk of developing new cardiovascular, neurologic, or mental health conditions than flu or sepsis patients — in some cases, the risks were even lower. And while COVID-19 patients did tend to have increased risks of venous thromboembolism, stroke, depression, and anxiety in the first 30 days following their discharge from the hospital, these risks dissipated after 30 days.

The researchers note that a higher percentage of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 died during hospitalization than those hospitalized for flu or sepsis, which could explain why the risks for some health outcomes were lower for COVID-19 patients. Yet overall, their research suggests that COVID-19 does not lead to significantly worse long-term symptoms than the flu or sepsis.

Although research over a longer period of time will be needed to fully assess the health outcomes of COVID-19, the results of this study will help researchers better understand patients currently dealing with post-COVID symptoms.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.