When Louisiana Congressman-elect Luke Letlow died of coronavirus complications on Tuesday night, many were shocked that a healthy person in their early 40s would succumb to the virus less than two weeks after being hospitalized.
Letlow, who turned 41 this month, died from the virus that has killed a larger percentage of elderly people but in rare cases has seen younger and otherwise healthy people experience life-threatening complications.
Dr. G.E. Ghali, who had been part of the team of doctors treating Letlow at LSU Health Shreveport said Tuesday evening that the Congressman-elect had no underlying health conditions that would have made death more likely.
“None, all COVID-related,” he replied in a text message.
Congressman-elect Luke Letlow died Tuesday evening from complications with COVID-19, shaking the Louisiana political world weeks after his ele…
Letlow was transferred to the intensive care unit at the Shreveport hospital on Dec. 23 after initially receiving treatment at a Monroe hospital with COVID-19 symptoms four days prior.
Of the nearly 7,400 deaths in Louisiana linked to the virus, only about 4% of people had no existing health conditions and about 365 were under the age of 49, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. Just 3% of the deaths were among people between the ages of 40 and 49, making Letlow one of 227 coronavirus-related deaths in his age range.
The average age of a person who has died from coronavirus in Louisiana is 75 years old.
It is still not well understood which younger, healthier people may be at a higher risk of complications, or why the virus spares others with mild symptoms, if any at all, while proving fatal to others.
“The question that is going to win the Nobel Prize is ‘who will develop these symptoms?’ Right now we have no clue why some people get really sick and others do well,” said the Ochsner Baton Rouge Regional medical director, Dr. Aldo Russo.
Health experts have increasingly found that COVID-19 — which initially appeared to mainly affect lung function in the early months of the pandemic — can lead to serious complications throughout a person’s body.
“This virus doesn’t stay in the lungs. It goes to the heart, the kidneys, the intestines. It messes with really really really important organ systems,” said Tulane epidemiologist Susan Hassig. “That’s what people don’t really seem to get.”
The Louisiana Department of Health reported 3,106 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 54 more confirmed deaths in its noon update on Tuesday.
In the rare instances in which a young or otherwise healthy person gets seriously sick from the disease, they often begin to deteriorate once the virus enters other organs, said Dr. Julio Figueroa, Chief of Infectious Disease at LSU Health New Orleans.
Along with other organs, the virus has been found to strike at the body’s vascular functions, which potentially could cause clotting that leads to even more serious complications like heart attacks or strokes.
Within some healthier patients Figueroa has treated, he’s found at times the virus will enter other organs and cascade into dire complications.
“It’s a slow train crash,” he said. “People try their best and we’ve learned a lot of how to treat these folks, but the ones who end up dying die in a pretty slow way as organs start malfunctioning.”
High blood pressure remains the most prevalent existing health condition found in people who’ve died from the illness in Louisiana, at nearly 64% of all patients, according to the state Department of Health. Heart, kidney and neurological ailments, as well as diabetes, were also prevalent in a significant number of people.
Some 40% of Americans also don’t realize they have high blood pressure and many don’t always receive proper treatment for it, Russo said.
A more difficult warning sign to foresee can come when the stress of being seriously ill possibly pushes forward hidden health problems that haven’t yet shown up in a person, Figueroa said.
“People are very different in their response to the virus,” he said.
Letlow was set to become Louisiana’s youngest U.S. representative at his inauguration next month following his recent election to represent Louisiana’s 5th District in Congress.
An outpouring of sympathies quickly followed his passing among political leaders in Louisiana and Washington, many touching on his years of public service and condolences to his two young children and wife, Julie Barnhill Letlow, that he leaves behind.
“There are no words for this loss,” said outgoing U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, who was set to hand the baton to Letlow in the 5th Congressional District. “There was no one like Luke Letlow, and there was no one who loved this state and its people more.”
Luke Letlow was set to become Louisiana’s youngest U.S. representative. He died Tuesday night from complications with COVID-19.
Staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this report.