COVID-19 Will Test Medical Supply Stocks,
Fauci Says

Kari Oakes

March 19, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.


In a JAMA Live Stream interview, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, urged resolve, rather than panic, as the coronavirus pandemic takes hold in the United States.

Dr. Fauci got into the details of what is known, what is unknown, what is being done in laboratories, and what clinical elements are still not understood about this disease.

The next several weeks, he said, are likely to tell the tale of whether our health care system is up to the challenge of care for the most ill among those who will be affected by COVID-19.

"It shouldn't panic or frighten us, but we have to know we're dealing with a very serious problem that we have to address, and we have to deal with it in a very bold way," said Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Speaking in an interview with JAMA Editor in Chief Howard Bauchner, MD, Dr. Fauci said the situation favors action over fear. "Let's apply that energy to doing the things that we know can mitigate this."

He added that he heard the message loud and clear from health care leaders in Italy and France during a World Health Organization coronavirus call earlier in the day. Officials in those countries, he said, were "almost pleading with the rest of the world to please take this very seriously, because it happens all of a sudden — very abruptly. ... The best time to mitigate is before that happens, because if you wait until after it happens you're playing catch-up."

Dr. Bauchner, noting that strict social distancing has been underway in many parts of the United States for several days, posited that, by early April, "We'll really have a sense if we can manage in terms of serious illness." Seattle, New York, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area may experience demand that outstrips ICU capacity at that point, but the rest of the country, he said, "is doing relatively well."

Stress Test on the Health Care System

Dr. Fauci agreed with this statement and added: "We're going to know — for better or worse — whether we have enough of what it takes to be able to practice the kind of medicine that we optimally would want to practice.

"In the matter of a week or 2...I think we'll get a feel for whether or not we really have enough of the supplies that it takes."

The well-publicized regional shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) are forcing tough choices in some areas. As expedited — and even drive-through — testing begins, some of the demand for testing-related PPE may abate, especially if protocols include self-administration of nasal swabs, he noted.

Dr. Fauci added that the strategic national stockpile of medical supplies and equipment has not yet been tapped, "but you need to backfill that as quickly as you can once you start drawing from the strategic national stockpile."

Returning to Work After COVID-19 Infection

Regarding the thorny question of when health care workers should be permitted to return to work after coronavirus infection, "it's an evolving story," said Dr. Fauci. Current guidance advises that health care providers stay away from work until two negative tests after resolution of fever and improvement of respiratory symptoms, or 3 fever-free days.

"We are approaching a point where you're going to get enough people who are getting infected that we aren't going to be able to do that," he said. Depending on the stress to the health care system in a given locality, he said that facilities are going to have to "decide with good judgment" when health care workers go back on the job after coronavirus infection.

Asked how soon an individual would reliably test positive for COVID-19 after exposure, Dr. Fauci said, "We don't know the answer to that. ... We can surmise it ..." He noted that it's a median of about 5 days with a range of 2 to 14 days, before an infected individual becomes symptomatic. "I can say it's not going to happen immediately," he added, noting that he wouldn't expect to see a positive test until about 2 days after exposure at the earliest. "When you get to the point where you are symptomatic, you're almost certainly going to be positive then. ... This is just an extrapolation," rather than conclusions drawn from solid data, he emphasized.

Higher Risk Reported in Cardiac Patients

Dr. Bauchner, who was relaying questions sent in from physicians during the live-streamed interview, asked about a newly issued joint statement from the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and the Heart Failure Society of America, which on March 17 affirmed that individuals on ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) continue that therapy if they should become ill with COVID-19. The European Society of Cardiology issued a similar recommendation a few days prior.

Despite these societies' statements, Dr. Fauci pointed to population-level data in Italy as suggesting that the case isn't yet closed. "We really need to get data, and we need to get data fast. There's a mechanistic rationale for the concern. It's there, and it's firm," he said. The theoretical concern is that ACE inhibitors can upregulate expression of the ACE-2 protein on cell membranes, which is the entry point for SARS-Cov-2 to enter cells.

He added that he remains concerned about the number of coronavirus fatalities of patients in Italy who had hypertension as their only, or primary, underlying health problem."That to me was a bit of a red flag," he said. "Patients with hypertension almost certainly had a physician, and the physician almost certainly treated that person with medication. Why should someone who has hypertension that was well controlled have a much greater chance of dying?" he asked, noting that "I look at a person with well-controlled hypertension as a relatively healthy person. I don't know what the answer is, but somebody has to look very carefully," ideally by means of a natural history study that identifies medications used by those who died from coronavirus.

Potential Therapies

Regarding potential therapies for COVID-19, Dr. Fauci acknowledged the social media buzz and flurry of medical letters and case reports about the use of hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) to treat active infection. He said that he and other researchers are "in active discussion" about how best to study the efficacy and safety of hydroxychloroquine, but he also acknowledged that many treating clinicians will use hydroxychloroquine empirically in the absence of other treatments with proven efficacy.

Clinical trials underway in China for antiviral medication are facing some enrollment challenges currently "because people want to get the drug," said Dr. Fauci. "They don't want to be in the trial; they just want to get the drug." Though each of two trials has targeted approximately 500 participants as the number needed for sufficient statistical power, Dr. Fauci urged Chinese data safety monitoring boards to "take a close look" at the data already accrued for the several hundred patients who have already enrolled for the studies "to see if there's any hint of efficacy."

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