Imaging Recommendations Issued for COVID-19 Patients

Mitchel L. Zoler

April 17, 2020

A consensus statement on the role of imaging during the acute work-up of COVID-19 patients called for liberal use in patients with moderate to severe clinical features indicative of infection, regardless of their COVID-19 test results, but limited use in patients who present with mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

The consensus statement on The Role of Imaging in Patient Management during the COVID-19 Pandemic released by the Fleischner Society on April 7 was designed to highlight the “key decision points around imaging” in COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Geoffrey D. Rubin

“We developed the statement to be applicable across settings” so that each clinic or hospital managing COVID-19 patients could decide the situations where chest radiography (CXR) or CT would work best, said Geoffrey D. Rubin, MD, professor of cardiovascular research, radiology, and bioengineering at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and lead author of the statement.

Written by 15 thoracic radiologists and 10 pulmonologists/intensivists including an anesthesiologist, a pathologist, and additional experts in emergency medicine, infection control, and laboratory medicine, and with members from any of 10 countries on three continents, the panel arrived at agreement by more than 70% for each of the 14 questions.

“I was impressed and a little surprised that consensus was achieved for every question” posed to the panel by the Fleischner Society for Thoracic Imaging and Diagnosis, Dr. Rubin said in an interview. The panel also placed their 14 decisions about imaging within the context of three distinct clinical scenarios chosen to mirror common real-world situations: mild COVID-19 features, moderate to severe features with no critical-resource constraints, and moderate to severe features with constrained resources. The statement also summarized its conclusions as five main recommendations and three additional recommendations.

Main recommendations:

  • Imaging is not routinely indicated for COVID-19 screening in asymptomatic people.

  • Imaging is not indicated for patients with mild features of COVID-19 unless they are at risk for disease progression.

  • Imaging is indicated for patients with features of moderate to severe COVID-19 regardless of COVID-19 test results.

  • Imaging is indicated for patients with COVID-19 and evidence of worsening respiratory status.

  • When access to CT is limited, chest radiography may be preferred for COVID-19 patients unless features of respiratory worsening warrant using CT.

Additional recommendations:

  • Daily chest radiographs are not indicated in stable, intubated patients with COVID-19.

  • CT is indicated in patients with functional impairment, hypoxemia, or both, after COVID-19 recovery.

  • COVID-19 testing is warranted in patients incidentally found to have findings suggestive of COVID-19 on a CT scan.

The statement particularly called out one of its recommendations – that a COVID-19 diagnosis “may be presumed when imaging findings are strongly suggestive of COVID-19 despite negative COVID-19 testing” in a patient who has moderate to severe clinical features of COVID-19 and whose pretest probability is high. The panel voted unanimously in favor of this concept, that imaging is “indicated” in hospitalized patients with moderate to severe symptoms consistent with COVID-19 despite a negative COVID-19 test result.

“This guidance represents variance from other published recommendations which advise against the use of imaging for the initial diagnosis of COVID-19,” the statement acknowledged and specifically cited the recommendations issued in March 2020 by the American College of Radiology. Despite that, the ACR and Fleischner recommendations “are not at odds with one another,” maintained Dr. Rubin. The panel based its take on this question on the “direct experience” of its members caring for COVID-19 patients, according to the statement.

“I wholeheartedly agree with the suggested uses of imaging outlined by the panel,” commented Sachin Gupta, MD, FCCP, a pulmonologist and critical care physician in San Francisco. “The consensus statement brings a practical way to consider obtaining imaging. It leaves the door open to local standards and best judgment for using CXR or CT. Many physicians are unclear whether to image low-risk and mildly symptomatic patients. This statement gives support to a watchful waiting approach.”

Another recommendation advises against daily CXR in stable, intubated COVID-19 patients. This “now gives backing from an important society and thought leaders while giving an explanation” for why daily imaging is problematic, he noted in an interview. The daily CXR in these patients adds no value, and skipping unneeded imaging minimizes SARS-CoV-2 exposure to radiology personnel, and conserves personal protection equipment, said the statement.

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