Care of Post-Acute COVID-19 Patients Requires Collaboration

Heidi Splete, MDedge News

May 25, 2021

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

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a population of patients has arisen with a range of symptoms and complications after surviving the acute phase of illness, according to Mezgebe Berhe, MD, of Baylor University Medical Center, Dallas.

Different terms have been used to describe this condition, including post COVID, long COVID, chronic COVID, and long-haulers, Berhe said in a presentation at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine. However, the current medical consensus for a definition is post–acute COVID-19 syndrome.

Acute COVID-19 generally lasts for about 4 weeks after the onset of symptoms, and post–acute COVID-19 is generally defined as "persistent symptoms and/or delayed or long-term complications beyond 4 weeks from the onset of symptoms," he said. The postacute period may be broken into a subacute phase with symptoms and abnormalities present from 4-12 weeks beyond the acute phase, and then a chronic or post–acute COVID-19 syndrome, with symptoms and abnormalities present beyond 12 weeks after the onset of acute COVID-19.

Patients in the subacute or post–COVID-19 phase of illness are polymerase chain reaction negative and may have multiorgan symptomatology, said Berhe. Physical symptoms include fatigue, decline in quality of life, joint pain, and muscle weakness; reported mental symptoms include anxiety and depression; sleep disturbance; PTSD; cognitive disturbance (described by patients as "brain fog"); and headaches.

Pulmonary symptoms in post–acute COVID-19 patients include dyspnea, cough, and persistent oxygen requirements; patients also have reported palpitations and chest pain. Thromboembolism, chronic kidney disease, and hair loss also have been reported in COVID-19 patients in the postacute period.

What Studies Show

Early reports on postacute consequences of COVID-19 have been reported in published studies from the United States, Europe, and China, and the current treatment recommendations are based on findings from these studies, Berhe said.

In an observational cohort study from 38 hospitals in Michigan, researchers assessed 60-day outcomes for 1,250 COVID-19 patients who were discharged alive from the hospital. The researchers used medical record abstraction and telephone surveys to assess long-term symptoms. Overall, 6.7% of the patients died and 15.1% required hospital readmission. A total of 488 patients completed the telephone survey. Of these, 32.6% reported persistent symptoms, 18.9% reported new or worsening symptoms, 22.9% reported dyspnea while walking up stairs, 15.4% reported a cough, and 13.1% reported a persistent loss of taste or smell.

Data from multiple countries in Europe have shown similar prevalence of post–acute COVID-19 syndrome, but Berhe highlighted an Italian study in which 87% of 143 patients discharged from hospitals after acute COVID-19 reported at least one symptom at 60 day. "A decline in quality of life, as measured by the EuroQol visual analog scale, was reported by 44.1% of patients" in the Italian study, Berhe noted.

In a prospective cohort study conducted in Wuhan, China, researchers conducted a comprehensive in-person evaluation of symptoms in 1,733 COVID-19 patients at 6 months from symptom onset, and found that 76% reported at least one symptom, said Berhe. "Similar to other studies, muscle weakness and fatigue were the most common symptoms, followed by sleep problems and anxiety/depression.

Berhe also cited a literature review published in Clinical Infectious Diseases that addressed COVID-19 in children; in one study of postacute COVID-19, approximately 12% of children had 5 weeks' prevalence of persistent symptoms, compared with 22% of adults. This finding should remind clinicians that "Children can have devastating persistent symptoms following acute COVID-19 disease," Berhe said.

In the Post-Acute COVID Clinic

"Multidisciplinary collaboration is essential to provide integrated outpatient care to survivors of acute COVID-19," Berhe said. Such collaboration includes pulmonary and cardiovascular symptom assessment through virtual or in-person follow-up at 4-6 weeks and at 12 weeks after hospital discharge. For those with dyspnea and persistent oxygen requirements at 12 weeks, consider the 6-minute walk test, pulmonary function test, chest x-ray, pulmonary embolism work-up, echocardiogram, and high-resolution CT of the chest as indicated.

With regard to neuropsychiatry, patients should be screened for anxiety, depression, PTSD, sleep disturbance, and cognitive impairment, said Berhe.

For hematology, "consider extended thromboprophylaxis for high-risk survivors based on shared decision-making," he said. The incidence of thrombotic events post COVID is less than 5% so you have to be very selective and they should be in the highest-risk category.

COVID-19 patients with acute kidney infections should have a follow-up with a nephrologist soon after hospital discharge, he added.

From a primary care standpoint, early rehabilitation and patient education are important for managing symptoms; also consider recommending patient enrollment in research studies, Berhe said.

Berhe has been involved in multiple clinical trials of treating acute COVID-19 patients, but had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine.

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