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


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

Clinicians are working out how to manage patients with or suspected of having COVID-19. Here’s what several physicians have told Medscape Medical News about how they’re treating COVID-19 cases now.

“Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been preparing for the oncoming onslaught of patients,” said Lillian Wu, MD, of the HealthPoint network in the Seattle area of greater King County and president elect of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians.

Step One: Triage

The first step, Wu says, is careful triage.

When patients call one of the 17 clinics in the HealthPoint system, nurses gauge how sick they are. High fever? Shortness of breath? Do they have a chronic illness, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or a lung condition, that increases risk for infection and complications?

“If a patient has mild symptoms, we ask them to stay home or to check back in 24 hours, or we’ll reach out to them. For moderate symptoms, we ask them to come in, and [we] clearly mark on the schedule that it is a respiratory patient, who will be sent to a separate area. If the patient is severe, we don’t even see them and send them directly to the hospital to the ER,” Wu told Medscape Medical News.

These categories parallel the World Health Organization’s designations of uncomplicated illness, mild pneumonia, severe pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, sepsis, and septic shock. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises case by case regarding decisions as to outpatient or inpatient assignment.

“Patients who pass the initial phone triage are given masks, separated, and sent to different parts of the clinic or are required to wait in their cars until it’s time to be seen,” Wu said.

Step 2: Hospital Arrival

Once at the hospital, the CDC’s interim guidance kicks in.

“Any patient with fever, cough, and shortness of breath presenting with a history of travel to countries with high ongoing transmission or a credible history of exposure should be promptly evaluated for COVID-19,” said Raghavendra Tirupathi, MD, medical director, Keystone Infectious Diseases/HIV; chair in infection prevention, Summit Health; and clinical assistant professor of medicine, Penn State School of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

“We recommend obtaining baseline CBC with differential, basic metabolic panel, liver function tests, and procalcitonin. Clues for COVID-19 include leukopenia, seen in 30% to 45% of patients, and lymphocytopenia, seen in 85% of the patients in the case series from China,” Tirupathi said. He uses a respiratory virus polymerase chain reaction panel to rule out other pathogens.

Wu concurs. “This is the one time we are grateful when someone tests positive for the flu! If flu is negative and other common respiratory infections are negative, then we do a COVID-19 test,” she said.

But test results may be delayed. “At the University of Washington, it takes 8 hours, but commercial labs take up to 4 days,” Wu said. All patients with respiratory symptoms are treated as persons under investigation, for whom isolation precautions are required. In addition, for these patients, use of personal protective equipment by caregivers is required.

For suspected pneumonia, the American College of Radiography recommends chest CT to identify peripheral basal ground-glass opacities characteristic of COVID-19.

However, diagnosis should be based on detection of SARS-CoV-2, because chest images for COVID-19 are nonspecific – associated signs can also be seen in H1N1 influenza, SARS, and MERS.


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