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So you have a COVID-19 patient: How do you treat them?


Step 3: Supportive Care

Once a patient is admitted, supportive care entails “maintaining fluid status and nutrition and supporting physiological functions until we heal. It’s treating complications and organ support, whether that means providing supplementary oxygen all the way to ventilator support, and just waiting it out. If a patient progresses to acute respiratory distress syndrome, it becomes tougher,” said David Liebers, MD, chief medical officer and an infectious disease specialist at Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, New York.

Efforts are ramping up to develop therapeutics. Remdesivir, an investigational antiviral drug developed to treat Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fevers, shows activity against SARS-CoV-2 in vitro.

Remdesivir has been used in a few patients on a compassionate-use basis outside of a clinical trial setting. “It’s a nucleotide analogue, and like other drugs of that class, it disrupts nucleic acid production. Some data suggest that it might have some efficacy,” Liebers said.

Antibiotics are reserved for patients suspected of having concomitant bacterial or fungal infections. Liebers said clinicians should be alerted to “the big three” signs of secondary infection – fever, elevated white blood cell count, and lactic acidosis. Immunosuppressed patients are at elevated risk for secondary infection.

Step 4: Managing Complications

Patients do die of COVID-19, mostly through an inability to ventilate, even when supported with oxygen, Liebers told Medscape Medical News. (According to Tirupathi, “The studies from China indicate that from 6%-10% of patients needed ventilators.”)

Liebers continued, “Others may develop sepsis or a syndrome of multisystem organ failure with renal and endothelial collapse, making it difficult to maintain blood pressure. Like with so many pathologies, it is a vicious circle in which everything gets overworked. Off-and-on treatments can sometimes break the cycle: supplementary oxygen, giving red blood cells, dialysis. We support those functions while waiting for healing to occur.”

A facility’s airborne-infection isolation rooms may become filled to capacity, but that isn’t critical, Liebers said. “Airborne precautions are standard to contain measles, tuberculosis, chickenpox, and herpes zoster, in which very small particles spread in the air,” he said.

Consensus is growing that SARS-CoV-2 spreads in large droplets, he added. Private rooms and closed doors may suffice.

Step 5: Discharge

Liebers said that as of now, the million-dollar question regards criteria for discharge.

Patients who clinically improve are sent home with instructions to remain in isolation. They may be tested again for virus before or after discharge.

Liebers and Wu pointed to the experience at EvergreenHealth Medical Center, in Kirkland, Washington, as guidance from the trenches. “They’re the ones who are learning firsthand and passing the experience along to everyone else,” Wu said.

“The situation is unprecedented,” said Liebers, who, like many others, has barely slept these past weeks. “We’re swimming in murky water right now.”

The epidemic in the United States is still months from peaking, Wu emphasized. “There is no vaccine, and many cases are subclinical. COVID-19 has to spread through the country before it infects a critical mass of people who will develop immunity. It’s too late to contain.”

Added Liebers, “It’s a constantly changing situation, and we are still being surprised – not that this wasn’t predicted.”

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