The COVID Event Horizon
How many COVID infections will you have in your lifetime? There’s probably a limit.
It is now no longer in question that our collective disinterest in doing the most bare minimum to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic is perpetuating mass disablement.
On May 24, 2022, the CDC, of all places, announced that more than 1 in 5 COVID cases results in Long COVID. This momentous news landed with the overwhelming silence of space trash floating out of Earth orbit. The next day, a study in Nature Medicine revealed that vaccines only reduce the risk of Long COVID by 15%. Not very much.
Long COVID is the term used to describe an array of post-viral syndromes that can have debilitating effects on multiple organ systems long after the acute infection has passed. The CDC researchers confirmed lasting post-COVID damage to the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, as well as cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, endocrine, and gastrointestinal systems. According to The Washington Post, “The coronavirus pandemic has created a mass-disabling event that experts liken to HIV, polio or World War II, with millions suffering the long-term effects of infection with the virus. Many have found their lives dramatically changed and are grappling with what it means to be disabled.”
Yahoo Finance breathlessly proclaims, “It’s not every day that a new disability emerges, perhaps permanently altering a large swath of the workforce. Then again, it’s not every day that a new pathogen bursts onto the scene, killing millions.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (womp womp!) estimates that Long COVID already affects between 7 million and 23 million Americans. Latest data from the UK has an estimated 2 million people experiencing Long COVID as of 1 May 2022.
In May 2021 it was 1 million.
What will it be next year?
According to The Atlantic, “You Are Going to Get COVID Again… And Again… And Again.”
“If we manage it the way that we manage it now, then most people will get infected with it at least a couple of times a year,” virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, Kristian Andersen, says in the New York Times. Doctors are now “seeing kids with [their] 3rd infection in [a] 4 month period. The shortest time between reinfection recorded by the CDC was 23 days.
All of which begs the question: how many SARS-CoV-2 infections can an organism sustain? People don’t get the flu 2 or 3 times a year, and if they did that would probably *also* be bad. But getting a thing that kills your T cells seems not infinitely scalable, right?
T cells— aka white blood cells — are a fundamental part of our adaptive immune system. Lymphopenia is a condition in which white blood cells are significantly reduced and the body becomes incapable of defending itself from infection. (Yes, you’ve seen this movie before.) Research has previously shown that marked lymphopenia is observed in SARS-CoV-2 patients. Now researchers at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have identified the mechanism for how SARS-CoV-2 directly infects and kills T cells.
COVID degrades your immune system for the next time you encounter the virus, and also makes you more susceptible to infections overall. (Population-level immune dysfunction may go a ways to explaining the emergence of the sudden new characters in our viral cinematic universe — Monkeypox, Pediatric Hepatitis, et al.) COVID also increases your risk of developing diabetes by 59%, which is then a contributing risk factor for severe COVID, including death. A massive new study by researchers at the University of Michigan, looking at patient records from the U.S. Veterans Administration, found that by the third reinfection there is a 31% increased risk of hospitalization compared to the first time you pop your COVID cherry. SARS-CoV-2 weakens the immune system and leads to damage of the brain, heart, lungs, liver, endocrine system, and much more, which in turn leads to increasingly worse COVID outcomes when you get infected again… and again… and again.
Imagine your DNA strands as intertwined shoelaces. At the end of each lace is a plastic tip that keeps the strand from coming undone. Telomeres are these caps at the end of each DNA strand that protect the chromosomes.
We start out our lives with long telomeres, but as our cells replicate the telomeres progressively get shorter. Like tree-rings, telomere lengths can be used as biological markers of age in every cell. Last year, a study looking at the telomeres of people who had been infected with COVID found that infection can make the aging process happen much faster. According to the findings, “COVID-19 survivors exhibited a significant acceleration of their biological age, occurring mainly in the younger individuals.” Just because you’re supposed to “learn to live with it” doesn’t mean it will be for long.
COVID isn’t just an infection, it’s an underlying medical condition. By next year we’ll have reached the point where people have started having 5 or more reinfections. What happens at 15? Or 25? What is the reinfection event horizon? Like have we tested in animals or something? What is the maximum upper limit of infection above which no mouse survives?
I’m guessing it’s not infinity.
While we don’t yet know what number of SARS CoV-2 assaults an organism can tolerate, we do know what level of COVID deaths the Biden administration thinks the American public will tolerate. According to Politico reporter Rachael Levy, “Biden officials in recent months privately discussed how many daily Covid-19 deaths it would take to declare the virus tamed. One person involved in the conversations said, ‘500 a day is a lot. You still have 9/11 numbers in a week… People generally felt like 100 [a day] or less, or maybe 200, would be OK.’ The U.S. has never sustained that level of deaths.”
As deaths from acute COVID are normalized, waves of new variants keep reinfections rising. Two years after the Coronavirus pandemic first arrived in the U.S., nearly 60% of Americans have already been infected. In May, The White House warned we are on track for another 100 million infections this fall.
Each surge, of course, washes fresh new waves of disabled and significantly sicker people ashore. COVID’s mass disabling is not so much an event — which implies a start and end time — as an era. As Diana Berrent, Founder of Survivor Corps, a grassroots COVID advocacy group says, “This is going to change the fabric of our society, and we need to prepare ourselves for it. There is no part of our society that is not going to be touched by Long COVID.”
As we continue the denihilist status quo of doing whatever this nothing we’ve been doing is, we now live in a state of collective grief. Whether through the loss of those we love, the health we used to take for granted, or the idea of any solidarity or accountability in the face of mass crisis. “The collective trauma of the past several years has slowly begun to erode our resilience and our hope,” Melissa Flint, PsyD, associate professor of clinical psychology at Midwestern University Glendale who specializes in thanatology (the study of death, dying and bereavement) and traumatic loss, tells CNBC. “Our brains have not practiced what it takes to cope with these enormous losses, one after another, after another. The cumulative effect of this has yet to be seen.”
Another event horizon lies ahead.