Most Americans Unaware of COVID-19's Effects on the Kidneys

June 6, 2020

Patients who have no history of kidney damage are ending up with acute kidney injury, which could leave them at higher risk of chronic kidney disease and dialysis.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is known as a respiratory infection, but it can also cause long-term kidney damage, a fact that most Americans have missed, according to a recent survey.

The National Kidney Foundation-Harris Poll Survey on COVID-19 and Kidney Health shows fewer than 1 in 5 American know that COVID-19 can cause renal damage. Just 17% are aware of the potential effects of the virus on the kidneys, while more than half (58%) know about the possibility of acute respiratory failure, pneumonia (54%), and acute respiratory distress syndrome (52%).

According to the results, public awareness of what COVID-19 can do to the kidneys is on par with what the virus can do to the liver, as 15% of the respondents knew it can cause acute liver injury; 16% knew it could cause septic shock.

An estimated 37 million adults have kidney disease, and it one of the most expensive chronic conditions to treat. Once a patient needs dialysis, Medicare eligibility becomes automatic within months, as dialysis costs at least $90,000 a year. Patients who need dialysis make up 1% of the Medicare population but account for 7% of the costs.

In a statement, the National Kidney Foundation reported that acute kidney injury is occurring in 15% of all patients who are hospitalized for COVID-19, and many of these patients end up needing dialysis. When a COVID-19 patient reaches intensive care, the odds increase that the person will lose kidney function—and the NKF says that some hospitals have found themselves in short supply of dialysis equipment or nurses trained to administer this level of care in the ICU.

What’s more, patients who have no history of kidney damage are ending up with acute kidney injury, which could leave them at higher risk of chronic kidney disease (CKD). Already, the number of Americans at risk of CKD is rising due to increased levels of diabetes and obesity, which put patient at higher risk of renal decline and at greater risk of needing a kidney transplant.

Yet, the survey found that less than half (46%) of Americans realized that COVID-19 will likely increase the number of people with long-term CKD and kidney failure. However, the survey did find that 65% are concerned about shortages of dialysis equipment due to COVID-19. And 87% support efforts, including by the federal government, to address shortages.

“A significant number of patients going into the hospital to be treated for COVID-19 are coming out as kidney patients,” Kevin Longino, CEO of the National Kidney Foundation and a kidney transplant patient, said in a statement. “We believe this may be a looming healthcare crisis that will put a greater strain on hospitals, dialysis clinics and patients, for whom chronic kidney disease will be a lasting remnant of the Coronavirus crisis—–even after a vaccine is hopefully found.”

The survey was conducted May 1-2, 2020 amongst a nationally representative sample of 2039 US adults. The online survey is not based on a probability sample and thus no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. The results are adjusted for age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, and education.