'This may be an ongoing epidemic after COVID-19 is gone." Doctors voice concern over rise in alcohol-related liver disease amid pandemic

At Keck Hospital of USC, admissions for alcoholic hepatitis and liver failure are up 30% in 2020 compared with the year before.
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Emergency rooms have been busy these days. But another specialty is seeing a patient surge: doctors who treat liver disease. The reason? A rise in alcohol abuse during this pandemic. It's another mounting toll COVID-19.

Some doctors call it a pandemic within a pandemic.

"We're seeing a lot more liver disease and a lot more liver disease from alcohol," said Transplant hepatologist Dr. Brian Lee with Keck Medicine of USC.

At Keck Hospital of USC, admissions for alcoholic hepatitis and liver failure are up 30% in 2020 compared with the year before.

To treat damaged livers, Lee knows you must also treat hearts and minds.

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Doctors fear many of the things people are doing to cope with the stress of the pandemic could lead to long-term health consequences. And liver cancer is a top concern.

"There are a lot of social issues that come with being a liver doctor," he said. "It really is linked to mental health. Alcohol is the most common cause of end stage liver disease and death."

Pre-pandemic, alcoholism-related liver disease was already a growing problem. But this current wave of illness is compounded by the stress of a tumultuous year and a lack of mental health services.

"Like going to therapy, going to rehab, going to AA. All of those have been shut down during COVID. So you can imagine how big of a problem this has been," Lee said.

Every year, 66,000 Americans die from liver cirrhosis. Nearly half are caused by alcohol abuse. And heavy drinking among women has been rising faster than men.

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Many patients who initially experienced milder COVID-19 symptoms are now showing up at the doctor's office months later with debilitating problems. They're being called "long-haulers."

"And that's been accelerated with COVID," said Lee.

COVID has also accelerated another common cause of liver damage: fatty liver disease. It comes with obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Add chronic drinking and it's a combination of two lethal trends.

If you're using alcohol, drugs or food to cope, Lee said now is the time to reach out.

"I'm worried that this may be an ongoing epidemic after COVID is gone," he said. "It's important to talk about it. Whether you talk about it with your friends, family or doctors. That's really the first step to being able to identify the problem."

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Dr. Michael Daignault with Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center says he is seeing patients who continue to struggle with organ inflammation and other long-term effects from COVID-19, known as "long haulers."

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