COVID-19: What are the major cardiovascular issues?

Acute viral myocarditis often confounds with ischemic injury


Frontline health care workers are facing escalating challenges with rapidly spreading coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection.1 Hospitalists will often deal with various manifestations of acute cardiac injury, controversial withholding of ACE inhibitors (ACEI) or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), arrhythmic toxicities from such drug therapies as hydroxychloroquine.

Dr. Bishnu H. Subedi, a noninvasive cardiologist for Wellspan Health System in Franklin and Cumberland counties in south-central Pennsylvania

Dr. Bishnu H. Subedi

Presentation and cardiac risks from COVID-19

Patients with COVID-19 often have presented with noncardiac symptoms, usually a febrile illness associated with cough or shortness of breath. Recent reports from Italy and New York have suggested patients also can present with isolated cardiac involvement without any other symptoms that can portend a grim prognosis.2 Cardiac effects include myocarditis, acute coronary syndrome, malignant arrhythmias ultimately cardiogenic shock and cardiac arrest.3

The mortality rate correlates with older age, preexisting health conditions, and availability of medical resources. A recent meta-analysis including 53,000 COVID-19 patients found the most common comorbidities were hypertension (19%), diabetes (8 %) and cardiovascular disease (CVD) (3%).4 Half of the cases died from respiratory failure and one-third have died from concomitant respiratory and heart failure. Acute heart failure alone accounted for about 7% of cases.5

Overall mortality rate can be better understood with the largest case series to-date of COVID-19 in mainland China published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The overall case-fatality rate was 2.3% (1,023 deaths among 44,672 confirmed cases), but the mortality reached 10.5% in patients with underlying CVD.6

Acute cardiac injuries in COVID-19

Acute cardiac injury (ACI) is defined as troponin elevation above the 99th percentile of the upper reference limit.7 A practical description of ACI in COVID-19 patients should also include broader definition with new abnormalities in ECG since not all patients with acute cardiac effects have developed troponin elevation.3 More recent reports showed up to 28% of hospitalized patients had a myocardial injury.3

It is not uncommon to see a patient with COVID-19 myocarditis as a mimicker of acute ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI). The mechanism of ACI is unknown, though several hypotheses have been proposed based on case series and retrospective reviews. These include direct viral invasion into myocardial cells leading to myocarditis, oxygen demand-supply mismatch, acute coronary syndrome from plaque rupture, stress, or cytokine-mediated cardiomyopathy.3 The exact incidence of true MI from occlusive coronary disease in the COVID-19 population is yet unknown.

In some cases, troponin elevation may be a late manifestation of COVID-19. As coronavirus disease progressed slowly, a rapid rise of troponin was noted when patients developed acute respiratory failure after 10 days of illness. Among nonsurvivors, a steady rise in troponin was observed from day 4 through day 22.8

ACI is associated with ICU admission and mortality. Both troponin and BNP levels increased significantly during the course of hospitalization in those who ultimately died, but no such changes were evident in survivors.3 ACI was higher in nonsurvivors (59%) than in survivors (1%).8 ACI was higher in ICU patients (22%), compared with non-ICU patients (2%).9 Patients with CVD were more likely to exhibit elevation of troponin levels (54%), compared with patients without CVD (13%).3

Higher troponin levels and the presence of CVD are directly proportional to severe disease and death. Patients with elevated troponin developed more frequent complications including acute respiratory distress syndrome, malignant arrhythmias including ventricular tachycardia/ventricular fibrillation, acute coagulopathy, and acute kidney injury.3,8 Death was markedly higher in patients with elevated troponin, compared with normal levels: 60% versus 9%. Only 8% with no CVD and normal troponin died, whereas 69% of people with underlying CVD and elevated troponin died.3

The median duration from illness onset to death was 23 (8-41) days in the group with elevated troponin. Patients with CVD and escalation of troponin levels had the shortest survival of 1-5 days. The dynamic rise of cardiac biomarkers and increased incidence of malignant arrhythmias during the course of illness shows that myocardial injury played a greater role in the fatal outcome of COVID-19 than the presence of preexisting CVD itself.3


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