COVID-19 Update: Hearing Loss Risk, New Mental Health Data

Ryan Syrek, MA

August 13, 2020

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

Here are the coronavirus stories that Medscape's editors around the globe think you need to know about today.

Hearing Loss After COVID?

A small study from a group of audiologists in the United Kingdom describes a deterioration in hearing ability among patients with COVID-19 after being discharged from the hospital. Published in the International Journal of Audiology, 121 adults admitted to the Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester were surveyed by telephone. When asked about changes to their hearing, 16 (13.2%) individuals reported that their hearing had worsened and eight reported tinnitus.

Although these findings are preliminary, the authors urgently call for further high-quality research to determine the acute and temporary effects of COVID-19 on hearing and the audiovestibular system. Their concern is that SARS-CoV-2 infection may result in problems with the middle ear or cochlea. 

Latest Data on Pandemic's Toll on Mental Health 

Results of a survey released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm that the ongoing pandemic is significantly harming Americans' mental health. During late June, approximately two in five US adults surveyed said they were struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems. The hardest hit were younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and those with pre-existing psychiatric conditions.

The survey of more than 5400 US adults aged 18 or older found that 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition. More than 30% reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, which was more than three times what was reported during the same period the year prior. Nearly twice as many respondents described serious consideration of suicide in the month prior, compared with 2018 findings.

These new data echo other findings regarding dramatic increases in depression, anxiety, and suicidality since the start of the pandemic. The CDC survey also highlighted populations at increased risk for psychological distress and unhealthy coping, which may allow interventions prior to the onset of significant mental health symptoms.

Hospital Developing New COVID-19 Protocols

Around the country, hospitals are attempting to adjust protocols for patients with COVID-19, often with limited information. At the virtual annual meeting of the Society of Hospital Medicine, physicians from the University of Texas at Austin described their experience regarding the use of convalescent plasma. Hospitalists and physicians there turned to cases series involving Ebola, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), along with a few small, nonrandomized COVID-19 studies that showed possible benefit and minimal risk. 

The center's COVID-19 committee initially recommended using convalescent plasma but later changed that recommendation, as the pandemic surged in the southern United States and the supply dwindled. This is an example of how hospitals are now forced to develop and reassess protocols for managing a pandemic under duress and without solid evidence. 

Those involved with the protocol changes stressed the importance of real-time communication, being aware of when certain specialists should be contacted, and laying the groundwork for productive meetings with clear agendas. As W. Michael Brode, MD, of UT's department of internal medicine, said: "Maybe the approach is more important than the actual content."

CDC Director on What's Ahead for COVID 

Robert Redfield, MD, the director of the CDC, recently offered a glimpse at the near future in the fight against COVID-19. In a conversation with John Whyte, MD, MPH, chief medical officer at WebMD, Redfield stressed the importance of flu vaccination to avoid increased stress on hospitals this fall. Last year, less than 50% of people who should have received the flu vaccine did so. Redfield hopes to raise that number to 65% this year. 

In terms of looking ahead to a COVID-19 vaccine, Redfield stated that he is "cautiously optimistic" that one or more will be available before the start of 2021. He noted that current vaccine trials are not excluding high-risk individuals, including those older than 70 years and those with significant comorbidities.

When asked what the fall and winter holidays may look like, Redfield stressed, "I think it's just dependent upon how the American people choose to respond." He believes that proven prevention strategies — like mask use, social distancing, and handwashing — could save the season. That is, provided that nearly everyone follows the recommendations. 

Fauci, Others Share Doubts About Russian Vaccine

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed his concerns about a COVID-19 vaccine being touted by Russia. In an interview for Stopping Pandemics, a virtual event hosted by National Geographic, Fauci shared his doubts that Russian scientists have "actually definitively proven that the vaccine is safe and effective."

Sputnik V, the vaccine named after Russia's satellite that was launched in 1960, has not yet completed late-stage clinical testing. In May, researchers said they began testing on themselves. The first phase of human clinical trials included 76 patients. So far, scientists haven't published any results.

Various countries are probing into Russia's claims. Experts from Israel, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and the Philippines have announced plans to either meet with Russian representatives directly or further investigate the vaccine. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Russian authorities are discussing the process for possible WHO prequalification, which would require a review of safety and efficacy data.

Letter to HHS on Data Integrity

Concerned about the Trump administration's shift in coronavirus data reporting, more than 30 current and former members of the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee wrote a letter obtained by the New York Times, warning about potential "serious consequences on data integrity."

Last month, hospitals were ordered to stop sending daily case reports to the CDC and begin providing them to a centralized database in Washington controlled by the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). That move sparked concerns about data being withheld or politicized. The 34 signees of the letter caution that this shift may impair the ability of researchers to quickly and correctly interpret and analyze critical data. 

In response, an HHS spokesperson stressed that, although the CDC is no longer responsible for collection, they do have access to all pertinent data.

Young Healthcare Workers Killed by COVID-19

A recent look at healthcare workers who died as a result of coronavirus highlighted those in their 20s. In a collaboration by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian, their database of 167 confirmed frontline deaths detailed 21 people (13%) who were younger than 40 and eight (5%) who were younger than 30.

In Memoriam

Medscape is also tracking the deaths of healthcare professionals, and we have published a memorial list to commemorate them. We will continue updating this list as, sadly, needed. Please help us ensure this list is complete by submitting names with an age, profession or specialty, and location through this form

If you would like to share any other experiences, stories, or concerns related to the pandemic, please join the conversation here.

Ryan Syrek, MA, is the section editor for medical student and resident content at Medscape. 

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