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Acute HIV cases double in ED. Is COVID-19 responsible?


The number of patients who presented with acute HIV infections at the University of Chicago’s ED more than doubled this year. At the same time, routine HIV visits dropped in the surrounding area.

David Pitrak, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine, and colleagues found that the incidence ratio of acute HIV infection (AHI) jumped to 14.4 this year, compared with the 6.8 average for the previous 4 years (IR, 2.14; 95% confidence interval, 1.01-4.54; P < .05).

At a press conference at IDWeek 2020, he said that this year, acute patients made up one quarter of all new diagnoses (9 of 35), “the highest percentage we have ever seen.

“Patients with acute infection, especially those with symptoms, have extremely high viral loads and progress more rapidly. Because of those high viral loads, there’s risk of transmission to others, so rapid linkage to care and ART [antiretroviral treatment] is really important,” he said.

After the IDWeek abstract was submitted in September, Dr. Pitrak said, three additional AHI cases were diagnosed in the ED, bringing the IR of AHI during the pandemic to 2.57 (95% CI, 1.29-5.11).

Should all EDs link HIV screening to COVID-19 testing?

The ED at UCM incorporated blood draws for HIV screening as part of COVID-19 evaluations early on during the pandemic, and they recommend that practice for EDs across the nation.

After a positive test result, the ID team was able to quickly link the HIV patients to care and initiation of antiretroviral treatment without adding staff or resources, Dr. Pitrak said in an interview.

Dr. Pitrak and colleagues reviewed data from 13 health care centers on the south and west sides of Chicago. At most of the centers, fourth- and fifth-generation antibody tests were available. The investigators found that the number of HIV screens that were conducted dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic, HIV screening at the sites decreased an average of 58%, the researchers found. As of the end of June, the number was decreased by 32%.

“This is a global problem,” he said. “HIV services have been severely impacted worldwide, with the greatest impact on the LGBTQ community.”

UCM performed 19,111 HIV screens (11,133 in the ED) between Jan. 1 and Aug. 17 this year. It performed 14,754 COVID polymerase chain reaction tests in the ED between March 17 and Aug. 17. All of the acute cases were identified in the ED.

Dr. Pitrak mentioned some possible causes of an increase in the number of patients with acute cases who present in the ED. People who do not suspect they have AHI may be coming to the ED because they think they have COVID-19, inasmuch as many of the symptoms overlap. One of the AHI patients actually did have a coinfection, Dr. Pitrak noted.

“There is also the possibility that this could be bad news,” Dr. Pitrak said in an interview. “It could be that there are more acute cases presenting because there are more community transmissions.”

He noted that follow-up visits have been canceled or converted to telehealth visits during the pandemic, and the number of patients who are initiating pre-exposure prophylaxis has declined significantly.

“I hope we’re not seeing an increase in new transmissions after so much work has been done to decrease transmissions over the past few years,” he said.


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