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'We've never seen this before': Pulmonologists say lung scans show devastating impacts from COVID-19

Doctors are finding the virus can have a devastating impact on a patient's body.

TAMPA, Fla. — Almost a year after our first cases in Florida, we're getting a real idea of the damage the coronavirus can cause for those who get it.

"I was the first person to be deployed to a COVID unit. It really was a big push to put your life on the line and put your family's life on the line," Dr. Gaetan Michaud said.

This time last year she was in New York City on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. She was the Chief of Interventional Pulmonary at NYU, tasked with guiding her colleagues through a moment no one was prepared for.

"We didn't know much at that time and we were seeing patients getting extremely sick. We didn't know how to manage that," Michaud said.

As the pandemic started to die down in New York, Michaud made her way to Tampa and USF Health. She's now focusing on how to prepare for a severe outbreak here.

"We've been really fortunate because there the number of patients, although there's a large number of people that have COVID, the number of really sick people with COVID is actually a lot lower than a lot of other areas of the country," Michaud said.

But the impact COVID-19 can have on a patient's body still concerns her. After analyzing X- rays, she found what's left behind is pretty severe.

"[Patients] can develop scarring of the lungs. Most other diseases that either scar the lung or cause emphysema, that's over decades. That's not over like a couple of weeks or a couple months. It's over many years. So, this is such a rapidly progressive scarring disease. It's not like anything we've seen before," Michaud said.

X-rays clearly show the difference. The lungs should look black on an X-ray or on a CT scan.

Credit: Dr. Gaetane Michaud
X-ray of healthy lungs

The lungs of a smoker with emphysema are still black but enlarged with more blood vessels. A COVID-19 patient is drastically different. 

"It almost looks like you take a nice piece of lace, and you lay it down over the lung. You can see this nice lacy pattern. That's actually the scarring around the air sacs," Michaud said.

Credit: Dr. Gaetane Michaud
Scans show the difference between a COVID-19 patients and a smoker

What's even more troubling is you can be an asymptomatic COVID-19 patient and still have damage.

"There are patients that actually have scarring of their lungs, even though they never really had any lung symptoms. We are also seeing patients that had mild forms of COVID, but they just don't get better," Michaud said.

To try and decrease potential scarring, doctors have stopped immediately putting patients on ventilators.

"The ventilator as the lung opens and closes can cause increased damage to the lungs," Michaud said.

But the only way to fully prevent any significant damage is to not get sick at all.

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