'Collateral Damage': COVID-19 Threatens Patients With COPD

Therese Borden, MDedge News

June 23, 2020

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There is concern that the COVID-19 pandemic may be inflicting collateral damage on vulnerable patients with chronic conditions, in particular, those with COPD, according to a commentary published in CHEST (2020 May 28. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2020.05.549) by a group of physicians who study COPD.

Not only is COPD among the most prevalent underlying diseases among hospitalized COVID-19 patients (Clin Microbiol Infect. 2020 Jun 8. doi: 10.1016/j.cmi.2020.05.041), but other unanticipated factors of treatment put these patients at extra risk. Valerie Press, MD, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Chicago, and colleagues aimed to alert physicians to be aware of potential negative effects, or collateral damage, that the pandemic can have on their patients with COPD, even those without a COVID-19 diagnosis.

These concerns include that patients may delay presenting to the ED with acute exacerbations of COPD and once they present they may be at later stages of the exacerbation. Further, evaluation for COVID-19 as a possible trigger of acute exacerbations of COPD (AECOPD) is essential; however, implementing proven AECOPD therapies remains challenging. For instance, routine therapy with corticosteroids for AECOPD may be delayed due to diagnostic uncertainty and hesitation to treat COVID-19 with steroids while COVID-19 testing is pending," Dr. Press and her colleagues stated.

Shortages and scarcity of medications such as albuterol inhalers to treat COPD have been reported. In addition, patients with COPD are currently less likely to access their health care providers because of fear of COVID-19 infection. This barrier to care and the current higher threshold for presenting to the hospital may to lead to more cases of AECOPD and worsening health in these patients, according to the authors.

Dr. Press said in an interview: "Access to medications delivered through inhalers is challenging even without the pandemic due to high cost of medications. Generic medications are key to improving access for patients with chronic lung disease, so once the generic albuterol becomes available, this should help with access. In the meantime, some companies help provide medications at reduced cost, but usually only on a short time basis. In addition, some pharmacies have lower-cost albuterol inhalers, but these are often not supplied with a full month of dosing."

In addition to all these concerns is the economic toll this pandemic is taking on patients. The association between COPD and socioeconomic status has been studied in depth (Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2019; 199[8]:961-69) and would indicate that low-income patients with COPD would face an increased burden during an economic downturn. The authors noted, "Historic rapid job loss and unemployment in the U.S., coupled with a health system of employment-integrated health insurance coverage, makes it more likely that people with COPD will not be able to afford their medication."

Dr. Press stressed that the COVID pandemic has highlighted critically important disparities in access to health care and disparities in health. "Many of the recommendations regarding stay-at-home and other safety mechanisms to prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19 have not been feasible for all sub-populations in the United States. Those that were essential workers did not have the ability to stay home. Further, those that rely on public transportation had less opportunities to social distance. Finally, while telemedicine opportunities have advanced for clinical care, not all patients have equal access to these capabilities and health disparities could widen in this regard as well. Clinicians have a responsibility to identify social determinants of health that increase risks to our patients' health and limit their safety."*

The authors offer some concrete suggestions of how physicians can address some of these concerns, including the following:

  • Be alert to potential barriers to accessing medication and be aware of generic albuterol inhaler recently approved by the FDA in response to COVID-19–related shortages.

  • Use telemedicine to monitor patients and improvement of home self-management. Clinicians should help patients "seek care with worsening symptoms and have clear management guidelines regarding seeking phone/video visits; implementing therapy with corticosteroids, antibiotics, or inhalers and nebulizers; COVID-19 testing recommendations; and thresholds for seeking emergent, urgent, or outpatient care in person," Dr. Press added, "Building on the work of nurse advice lines and case management and other support services for high-risk patients with COPD may continue via telehealth and telephone visits."

  • Ensure that untried therapy for COVID-19 "does not displace proven and necessary treatments for patients with COPD, hence placing them at increased risk for poor outcomes."

Dr. Press is also concerned about the post–COVID-19 period for patients with COPD. "It is too early to know if there are specific after effects of the COVID infection on patients with COPD, but given the damage the virus does to even healthy lungs, there is reason to have concern that COVID could cause worsening damage to the lungs of individuals with COPD."

She noted, "Post-ICU [PICU] syndrome has been recognized in patients with ARDS generally, and patients who recover from critical illness may have long-lasting (and permanent) effects on strength, cognition, disability, and pulmonary function. Whether the PICU syndrome in patients with ARDS due to COVID-19 specifically is different from the PICU syndrome due to other causes remains unknown. But clinicians whose patients with COPD survive COVID-19 may expect long-lasting effects and slow recovery in cases where COVID-19 led to severe ARDS and a prolonged ICU stay. Assessment of overall patient recovery and functional capacity (beyond lung function and dyspnea symptoms) including deconditioning, anxiety, PTSD, weakness, and malnutrition will need to be addressed. Additionally, clinicians may help patients and their families understand the expected recovery and help facilitate family conversations about residual effects of COVID-19."

The authors had no disclosures.

SOURCE: Press V et al. Chest. 2020 May 28. doi:10.1016/j.chest.2020.05.549.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.


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