This fits logically with the premise, which we have some limited data on with ARDS (N Engl J Med. 2003;348:683-93.) and severe influenza infection survivors (Nature Sci Rep. 2017;7:17275. ) that varying degrees of the inflammation cascade triggered by certain viruses can lead to changes in important patient-reported outcomes, and objective measures such as pulmonary function over the long term.
Q: What can you do for patients with lingering symptoms of COVID-19 or what can you tell them about their symptoms?
Dr. Gupta: For many patients, there is fear, given the novel nature of the virus/pandemic, that their symptoms may persist long term. Acknowledgment of their symptoms is validating and important for us to recognize as we learn more about the virus. As we are finding, many patients are going online to find answers, after sometimes feeling rushed or dismissed initially in the clinical setting.
In my experience, the bar is fairly high for most patients to reach out to their physicians with complaints of lingering symptoms after acute infection. For the ones who do reach out, they tend to have either a greater constellation of symptoms or higher severity of one or two key symptoms. After assessing and, when appropriate, ruling out secondary infections or newly developed conditions, I shift toward symptom management. I encourage such patients to build up slowly. I suggest they work first on their activities of daily living (bathing, grooming), then their instrumental activities of daily living (cooking, cleaning, checking the mail), and then to engage, based on their tolerance of symptoms, to light purposeful exercise. There are many online resources for at-home exercise activities that I recommend to patients who are more debilitated; some larger centers are beginning to offer some forms of telepulmonary rehab.
Based on what we know about other causes of viral pneumonitis and ARDS, I ask such symptomatic patients to expect a slow, gradual, and in most cases a complete recovery, and depending on the individual case, I recommend pulmonary function tests and imaging that may be helpful to track that progress.
I remind myself, and patients, that our understanding may change as we learn more over time. Checking in at set intervals, even if not in person but through a phone call, can go a long way in a setting where we do not have a specific therapy, other than gradual exercise training, to help these patients recover faster. Reassurance and encouragement are vital for patients who are struggling with the lingering burden of disease and who may find it difficult to return to work or function as usual at home. The final point is to be mindful of our patient’s mental health and, where our reassurance is not enough, to consider appropriate mental health referrals.
Q: Can you handle this kind of problem with telemedicine or which patients with lingering symptoms need to come into the office – or failing that, the ED?
Dr. Gupta: Telemedicine in the outpatient setting provides a helpful tool to assess and manage patients, in my experience, with limited and straightforward complaints. Its scope is limited diagnostically (assessing symptoms and signs) as is its reach (ability to connect with elderly, disabled, or patients without/limited telemedicine access). In many instances, telemedicine limits our ability to connect with patients emotionally and build trust. Many patients who have gone through the acute illness that we see in pulmonary clinic on follow-up are older in age, and for many, video visits are not a practical solution. Telemedicine visits can sometimes present challenges for me as well in terms of thoroughly conveying lifestyle and symptom management strategies. Health literacy is typically easier to gauge and address in person.