Atrial fibrillation boosts risk of complications, death from COVID-19, study finds

Utah reports 2,219 new cases and 13 deaths Wednesday

Intermountain Healthcare researchers on Wednesday announced that those with atrial fibrillation — a heart condition that affects more than 12 million in the U.S. — face significantly increased risk of complications and death from the novel coronavirus.

Researchers described atrial fibrillation, or AFib, as the most common type of heart arrhythmia in adults. According to the American Heart Association, the condition causes "quivering" or irregular heartbeat, and it can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other complications.

The Intermountain study in Salt Lake City found that those with a history of atrial fibrillation who contract COVID-19 "are not only more likely to need hospitalization, ICU and ventilator support, but nearly 62% more likely to suffer a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart failure hospitalization, and 40% more likely to die than individuals who don't have a history of atrial fibrillation," hospital officials said in a statement.

"We often think of atrial fibrillation as more of a nuisance arrhythmia that can cause unpleasant symptoms and some negative clinical impacts, but is generally not life-threatening," said Dr. Michael J. Cutler, lead investigator of the study and a heart rhythm specialist at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute.

"However, the findings of our study suggest that patients with atrial fibrillation are at higher risk than the general population for serious complications from COVID-19 illness."

Cutler and others who worked on the study presented their findings at the American Heart Association 2021 Scientific Sessions this week.

The study found that 3,119 patients with a prior atrial fibrillation diagnosis who were examined at Intermountain Healthcare after they tested positive for the coronavirus "did clinically worse" than patients without a previous AFib diagnosis. The study took place between March 2020 and May 2021.

Researchers said those patients were more likely to need hospitalization, oxygen support, intensive care unit treatment and ventilators. They were also 61.5% more likely to suffer a major cardiovascular event like heart failure, and 40% more likely to die due to COVID-19 than those without AFib, according to the statement.

Cutler urged patients with AFib to understand they are in a higher-risk category and take precautions against the coronavirus.

The findings will also help doctors understand how to treat atrial fibrillation patients with COVID-19, researchers noted.

Later Wednesday, Utah health officials reported 2,219 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, as well as 13 deaths.

The rolling, seven-day average for new cases is 1,674 per day, and the average positive rate of those tested is 16.6%, according to a daily update from the Utah Department of Health.

The health department announced changes to how race and ethnicity data estimates are reported, including for vaccine uptake, testing, cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The department has also updated its data dashboard with 2020 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, as opposed to 2019 estimates, causing changes in data percentages.