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Phoenix ICU nurse warns that COVID can devastate young, healthy adults

Clinicians care for COVID-19 patients in a makeshift ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center on January 21, 2021 in Torrance, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – A Phoenix nurse said her intensive care unit is seeing plenty of young, healthy patients who are extremely ill or dying from COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, our sickest patients, the sickest on ECMO that are dying, are in their 30s and 40s,” Jolene Johanessen, an ICU nurse at the Mayo Clinic, told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show on Monday. ECMO is a machine that replaces heart and lung function in severely ill patients.

While older people and people with comorbidities — including diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, cancer — suffer complications or die from COVID-19 at a higher rate, the coronavirus is potentially deadly to anybody it infects.

Johanessen said people outside of the high-risk groups shouldn’t act as if the virus isn’t a threat to them.

“We literally have young people that have no comorbidities in their 30s,” she said. “Nothing. Not obese. No longstanding medical history. Not on any medication.

“And they are sicker than sick, and there’s a good chance they won’t survive. So it doesn’t discriminate.”

Almost half of the approximately 50,000 Arizona COVID-19 cases that have required hospitalizations have been 65 or older, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. But more than 16,000 Arizonans age 45-64 and almost 10,000 in the 20-44 group have checked into hospitals for COVID-19 treatment.

“We have several people that the whole family is sick with COVID, and some barely get sick and some die,” Johanessen said. “Some get hospitalized and on a ventilator, and some just require a little bit of oxygen.”

“We don’t know why certain people are so severely affected.”

Nearly 11% of the approximately 12,000 Arizonans who have died from COVID-19, have been under 55.

And people who survive their illness can suffer from devastating long-term effects.

Johanessen said she knows of somebody who was a marathon and triathlon athlete and weighed 110 pounds but had her life upended by the virus.

“She got COVID, wasn’t hospitalized, but still 10 months later she can’t take care of her kids,” Johanessen said.

“She’s on disability. She has chronic fatigue syndrome where she sleeps 16 to 18 hours a day, daily migraines. Her family has to come help take care of her kids. She can’t work.”

Johanessen said she wishes more people would take mitigation practices seriously.

“It’s amazing how many people still don’t really think it’s a big deal,” she said.

“It really is, so hopefully people will take the opportunity to get vaccinated, wear masks, social distance and just make good choices.”

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