Infected patients may have a decreased peripheral white blood cell count, with a specific decrease in the number of lymphocytes. Thrombocytopenia may be present, as well as an elevation in the hepatic transaminase enzymes (ALT, AST).2
X-ray, chest CT, and RT-PCR. The three most important diagnostic tests are chest x-ray, chest computed tomography (CT) scan, and real-time PCR (RT-PCR) or nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT).2,6 Specimens for RT-PCR or NAAT should be obtained from the oropharynx and nasopharynx using a synthetic-tipped applicator with an aluminum shaft. Patients who are intubated should have specimens obtained by broncho-alveolar lavage. The virus also has been recovered from blood and stool, but not yet from urine, amniotic fluid, placenta, cord blood, or breast milk.2
CT and chest x-ray show characteristic ground-glass opacities in both lung fields, combined with multiple areas of consolidation. Chest imaging is particularly helpful when the patient has all the major clinical manifestations, but the initial RT-PCR or NAAT is negative.
Fortunately, most infected persons can be treated as outpatients. Because this condition may be confused with influenza A or B, initial treatment with a drug such as oseltamivir 75 mg orally twice daily for five days is very reasonable.9 Supportive therapy is critically important in this clinical setting. Acetaminophen, up to 3,000 mg/d in divided doses, or ibuprofen, up to 2,400 mg/d in divided doses, can be used to reduce fever and relieve myalgias and arthralgias. The latter drug, of course, should not be used in pregnant women. The patient should be encouraged to rest and to stay well hydrated. Loperamide can be used to treat diarrhea, 4 mg orally initially, then 2 mg orally after each loose stool up to a maximum of 16 mg/d. Pregnant patients should be cautioned to watch for signs of preterm labor.9,12 Patients should remain in relative isolation at home until they are free of signs of illness and they test negative for COVID-19.
For patients who are more severely ill at initial evaluation or who deteriorate while undergoing outpatient management, hospitalization is indicated.2,6 Patients should be placed in rooms that provide protection against aerosolized infection. They should receive supplemental oxygen and be observed closely for signs of superimposed bacterial infection. Depending upon the suspected bacterial pathogen, appropriate antibiotics may include ceftriaxone, which targets Streptococcus pneumoniae, Hemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis; azithromycin, which targets mycoplasmas; and vancomycin, which specifically covers Staphylococcus aureus. Health care workers should wear appropriate personal protective equipment when interacting with these patients, including cap, N95 mask, face shield, gloves, gown, and shoe covers. If a woman with COVID-19 has delivered, and the pediatrician permits rooming in, the isolette should be positioned at least 6 feet away from the mother. The mother should use a mechanical breast pump to obtain milk and then have another family member feed the baby until the mother tests negative for the virus. The breast pump needs to be cleaned meticulously after each use. The number of visitors to the mother’s room should be strictly limited.3,9
At the present time, there is no specific antiviral drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treatment of COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health is currently conducting a trial of remdesivir for affected patients.13 The drug is also available from the manufacturer outside of this trial on a “compassionate use” basis. Another treatment regimen receiving extensive publicity is the combination of azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine. Its effectiveness has not been confirmed in a properly designed randomized trial.
Prevention hinges on commonsense precautions
Although vaccine trials are underway, public health authorities estimate that a vaccine will not be commercially available for at least 12 to 18 months. Therefore, independent of “community/organizational” mitigation programs, individuals should observe the following commonsense precautions to minimize their risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-192,3,5,14:
- Eliminate any nonessential travel, particularly by plane or cruise ship.
- Avoid events that draw large crowds, such as concerts, theater performances, movies, and even religious services.
- When out in public, try to maintain a distance of 6 feet from others
- Remain at home if you feel ill, particularly if you have respiratory symptoms.
- Cough or sneeze into your sleeve rather than your bare hand.
- Avoid handshakes.
- Wash your hands frequently in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after touching environmental surfaces such as counter tops and handrails.
- If you use hand sanitizers, they should have an alcohol content of at least 60%.
- Clean environmental surfaces frequently with a dilute bleach solution.
The clinical manifestations displayed by this patient are consistent with viral influenza. The recent travel history to one of the European epicenters makes COVID-19 the most likely diagnosis. The patient should have a chest CT scan and a RT-PCR or NAAT to confirm the diagnosis. If the diagnosis is confirmed, she and her close contacts should be self-quarantined at home for 14 days. She should receive appropriate supportive care with anti-pyretics, analgesics, and anti-diarrhea agents. If she develops signs of serious respiratory compromise, she should be admitted to an isolation room in the hospital for intensive respiratory therapy and close observation for superimposed bacterial pneumonia.