From the Journals

COVID-19: ‘dramatic’ surge in out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in NYC


The COVID-19 pandemic in New York City led to a surge in out-of-hospital cardiac arrests (OHCAs) that placed a huge burden on first responders, a new analysis shows.

During the height of the pandemic in New York, there was a “dramatic increase in cardiopulmonary arrests, nearly all presented in non-shockable cardiac rhythms (> 90% fatality rate) and vulnerable patient populations were most affected,” David J. Prezant, MD, chief medical officer, Fire Department of New York (FDNY), said in an interview.

In a news release, Dr. Prezant noted that “relatively few, if any, patients were tested to confirm the presence of COVID-19,” making it impossible to distinguish between cardiac arrests as a result of COVID-19 and those that may have resulted from other health conditions.

“We also can’t rule out the possibility that some people may have died from delays in seeking or receiving treatment for non–COVID-19-related conditions. However, the dramatic increase in cardiac arrests compared to the same period in 2019 strongly indicates that the pandemic was directly or indirectly responsible for that surge in cardiac arrests and deaths,” said Dr. Prezant.

The study was published online June 19 in JAMA Cardiology.

New York City has the largest and busiest EMS system in the United States, serving a population of more than 8.4 million people and responding to more than 1.5 million calls every year.

To gauge the impact of COVID-19 on first responders, Dr. Prezant and colleagues analyzed data for adults with OHCA who received EMS resuscitation from March 1, when the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the city, through April 25, when EMS call volume had receded to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Compared with the same period in 2019, the COVID-19 period had an excess of 2,653 patients with OHCA who underwent EMS resuscitation attempts (3,989 in 2020 vs. 1,336 in 2019, P < .001), an incidence rate triple that of 2019 (47.5 vs. 15.9 per 100,000).

On the worst day – Monday, April 6 – OHCAs peaked at 305 cases, an increase of nearly 10-fold compared with the same day in 2019.

Despite the surge in cases, the median response time of available EMS units to OHCAs increased by about 1 minute over 2019, a nonsignificant difference. Although the average time varied, median response time during the COVID-19 period was less than 3 minutes.

A more vulnerable group

Compared with 2019, patients suffering OHCA during the pandemic period were older (mean age 72 vs. 68 years), less likely to be white (20% white vs. 33%) and more likely to have hypertension (54% vs. 46%), diabetes (36% vs. 26%), physical limitations (57% vs. 48%) and cardiac rhythms that don’t respond to defibrillator shocks (92% vs. 81%).

Compared with 2019, the COVID-19 period had substantial reductions in return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC) (18% vs. 35%; P < .001) and sustained ROSC (11% vs. 25%; P < .001). The case fatality rate was 90% in the COVID-19 period vs. 75% a year earlier.

“The tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic is not just the number of patients infected, but the large increase in OHCAs and deaths,” Dr. Prezant and colleagues said.

Identifying patients with the greatest risk for OHCA and death during the COVID-19 pandemic “should allow for early, targeted interventions in the outpatient setting that could lead to reductions in out-of-hospital deaths,” they noted.

“Vulnerable patient populations need outreach, telephonic medicine, televideo medicine, home visits, not just temperature monitoring but home O2 saturation monitoring,” Dr. Prezant said in an interview. “Barriers need to be removed, not just for this pandemic but for the future – no matter what the trigger is.”


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