Local virologist explains COVID-19's impact on at-risk carriers

Posted at 8:29 PM, May 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-28 08:01:17-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — COVID-19's impact on the body can have a huge impact on certain at-risk populations, such as people who smoke and have COPD or who are diabetic, according to one local researcher.

The doctor, who's a professor at both Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University, focuses on virus research, including viruses such as Zika and the Herpes family of viruses.

Dr. Donald Alcendor is a molecular virologist. He said, since the outbreak of coronavirus globally, he and much of the scientific community have focused all of their efforts on stopping the virus's spread.

He said, here in Tennessee, things could've been worse.

"Tennessee was fortunate in that the numbers in Tennessee were very mild as far as the number of people that are infected and are dying," said Dr. Alcendor. "Tennessee did something that I thought was very important. They took young people out of school very early. The reason why I think that's important is young people represent a vector that would be uncontrollable in this epidemic."

Dr. Alcendor said he's been watching television, but never hears experts explain how the virus impacts people who are at-risk. He said he believes it's something people should know. So, they can make decision to help lower their risk of having serious symptoms should they be infected.

Alcendor said, once the virus enters the body through the eyes, nose or mouth of a person, it starts to make it's way into the lungs. That's where he says the main damage happens.

The virus attaches to the part of the lung where oxygen and CO2 transfer happens. He said the virus connects to what's called the ACE2 receptor, which then lets the virus into the cell.

One inside, the virus replicates. He said researchers found, in people who had COPD and who smoked, the virus replicates more quickly.

"It turns out that a person with COPD that are current smokers, there's an increased level of expression of Ace 2 on the surface of their lung cells," said Dr. Alcendor. This means there are more receptors for the virus to connect with than the average person.

When the lung cell dies, Alcendor said the nearby tissue releases fluid, causing pneumonia. People who enter the hospital with 50-percent lung capacity can see it decrease, even when on a ventilator. Their condition can eventually lead to death.

"You cannot breath on your own. You are a critical patient that will have to be monitored constantly. A person that is on a ventilator, basically, all their movements are suppressed by sedation. Under sedation the things that are in your upper airway, you cannot move around in the bed with this," he said.

Also, Alcendor said people with diabetes are at higher risk due to a decreased immune system and steroids that could make the situation worse.

He also said there are preventative measures people can take to increase their lung function.

"Stopping any smoking habits would be important along the way," said Alcendor. "Of course, one thing would be to support lung function with exercise. So, if you quit smoking. That's part of it. The idea is to go out there and involve yourself in aerobic activity that greatly support lung function."