PETERS TOWNSHIP (KDKA) — One of the newest lessons about the coronavirus is how it impacts organs besides the lungs.

“Viruses have a propensity for attacking the heart,” says Dr. Bob Biederman, who is in cardiac imaging at the Allegheny Health Network. “It did not come as an overall surprise.”

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And it can be tricky. Doctors may think they’re dealing with something else.

“It was masquerading like a heart attack,” Dr. Biederman says. “What looks like a heart attack, when you took those patients to the catheterization laboratory, they were having no evidence of coronary artery disease or acute heart attack.”

What they had was inflammation from the virus — of the heart muscle itself or the sac around the heart — and then the heart doesn’t work properly.

“We’ve seen a few echocardiograms that have shown evidence of dysfunction,” Biederman said. “The heart can’t squeeze as well, and it can’t relax as well.”

From a study of more than 400 people with coronavirus at one hospital in Wuhan, China, one out of every five had heart damage.

Turns out, this inflammation is a risk factor for death.

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People with heart disease, to begin with, have a higher chance of severe illness.

People with high blood pressure have a 6 percent mortality rate, with heart disease at 10 1/2 percent.

For hospitalized patients, in general, the mortality rate is 1 to 3 percent.

In Allegheny County, heart disease and stroke are top causes of death.

Dr. Biederman worries about what this might suggest for the risk of severe illness here, and what this might hint at in cases of sudden cardiac death.

“Only had signs and symptoms for two days, and was planning on going to get tested on that Monday morning. She was found dead,” Dr. Biederman describes a case he’s aware of. “We are living and learning every day as we do this.”

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Some of the complications that were more common in people with heart involvement include respiratory distress, kidney injury, abnormal blood chemistries, and clotting and bleeding problems.