Six-Month Follow-up Shows Continuing Morbidity for COVID-19 Survivors

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN, MDedge News

February 23, 2021

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In December 2019, a cluster of cases of what was first identified as a "mysterious pneumonia" was reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Within a few short months, the disease had spread all over the world.

Wuhan was essentially "ground zero" for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, and now researchers report that many of the early survivors continue to experience a variety of lingering health issues.

At 6 months, for example, pulmonary and immune function have still not returned to normal in many of the patients who had been critically ill, said Zhiyong Peng, MD, PhD, an intensivist and medical researcher, in the department of critical care medicine, Zhonnan Hospital, Wuhan.

In addition, many are still experiencing varying degrees of psychiatric disability and physical morbidity.

The results of the report were presented at the Critical Care Congress sponsored by the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

In 2020, Peng and colleagues conducted a single-center case series involving 138 patients with coronavirus pneumonia in order to describe the clinical characteristics of this new disease. Within this group, 26% of patients required admission to the intensive care unit and 4.3% died. As of Feb. 3, 2020, 26% required ICU care, 34.1% were discharged, 4.3% died, and 61.6% remained hospitalized. (JAMA. 2020 Mar 17;323[11]:1061-69) Not surprisingly, those requiring critical care experienced a higher rate of severe complications, including shock, arrythmias, acute cardiac injury and acute respiratory distress syndrome, compared with non-ICU patients.

"However, the long-term outcomes of survivors were unknown," said Peng. Thus, the goal of the current study was to analyze the outcomes based on pulmonary function, physical morbidity, immunological status, health-related quality of life, cognitive impairment, and psychiatric disability.

The cohort included patients from four hospitals in Wuhan, who had been treated in the adult ICU and required mechanical ventilation (invasive or noninvasive), or had a high FiO2 concentration, or needed an intravenous infusion of vasopressors.

In all, 171 critically ill patients were admitted to the four designated hospitals, and of this group, 110 were discharged from ICU and 106 survived. At the 3-month follow-up, 92 patients were evaluated and at 6 months, 72 were evaluated.

Pulmonary function tests were performed, and all patients received a chest CT scan, and did the "6-minute walk test." For immune function, lymphocyte counts and function assays were performed. The SF-36 questionnaire was used to evaluate health related quality of life, and cognitive and psychological assessments were conducted with a variety of tools including the Mini-Mental State Examination and Montreal Cognitive Assessment. Depression and anxiety were measured with Zung's Self-Rating Anxiety Scale and the Hamilton Rating Scale.

At 3 months, 5 patients (5.4%) were seropositive for IgM and 9 (9.8%) were seronegative, while at 6 months, 9 patients (12.9%) tested seropositive for IgM and 12 (16.67%) tested seronegative.

A high proportion of patients also reported tachypnea after exercising (54%), heart palpitations (51.8%), fatigue (44.6%), and joint pain (20.5%).

In terms of lung function, survivors who had been intubated scored worse on pulmonary function tests and had a significant decrease in diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide (DLCO), compared with those who had not been intubated.

At 6 months, the DLCO remained at 76% of the predicted level, but the walking test and chest CT scan improved over time. "In multivariate analysis tracheostomy was a risk factor associated with distance walked in 6 minutes," said Peng.

Other results showed that B cells were lower in survivors who had been intubated, compared with those who weren't, and they were still low at 3 and 6 months, compared with normal values. T-cell subsets were also persistently low.

"Hyperfunction of T lymphocytes and hypofunction of NK cells were detected, which had not improved at 6 months," said Peng.

Cognitive dysfunction and depression were reported in some survivors. Cognitive dysfunction at 3 months affected 12.8% of survivors, but it improved by 6 months, affecting on only 2.9% of the cohort (P = .029). However, rates of depression more than doubled from 3 to 6 months (20% vs. 47.8%, P < .001), and anxiety showed a slight increase (15.6% vs. 17.6%, P = .726).

"Further follow-up will be performed to confirm these findings," Peng concluded.

Rahul Kashyap, MBBS, MBA, a research scientist and assistant professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., noted that currently the research from Wuhan is showing the follow-up for 6 months, but it takes time to gather and analyze the data. "I suspect we will be seeing results from the 1-year follow-up by June," he said.

Kashyap, who was approached for an independent comment, also pointed out that in follow-up of SARS patients, some of them recovered but went on to develop chronic fatigue syndrome which is characterized by extreme fatigue that doesn't improve with rest. "So the scientific community is contemplating if this will be true for patients with COVID-19 infection as well," he said. "We have already seen that some of the 'long haulers' continue to have symptoms such as shortness of breath, joint pain, fatigue, loss of smell and taste, and even hearing loss in extreme cases."

Some research is also confirming what has been reported from Wuhan. "Data from Ireland, that looked at 150 survivors, showed that almost 60% said they did not feel they were back to full health, regardless of the severity of the disease," Kashyap said. "So, aside from Wuhan, we are now getting data from other sources that is similar. But what is interesting about the data from Ireland is that not all of the patients had severe illness or were in ICU."

He added that data continue to come in from the United States and other countries, looking at long-term effects. "More and more patients are surviving as the care is getting better," he said. "But beyond a year, we just don't know yet."

There was no outside sponsor listed. Peng and Kashyap have no disclosures.

This article originally appeared in Chest Physician.


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