Interim guidance for pediatricians on an alarming new syndrome
Edward E. Conway Jr., MD, recalled that early in the U.S. pandemic, pediatricians felt a sense of relief that children appeared to be spared from severe COVID-19 disease. But, in just the past few weeks, a new syndrome has emerged. New York City has recorded more than 100 cases of what’s provisionally being called COVID-associated pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Dr. Conway and others are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a case definition for the syndrome, first reported by pediatricians in Italy and the United Kingdom.
“We’re trying to get the word out to general pediatricians as to the common signs and symptoms that should prompt parents to bring their children in for medical care,” according to Dr. Conway, chief of pediatric critical care medicine and vice-chair of pediatrics at Jacobi Medical Center in New York.
Ninety percent of affected children have abdominal symptoms early on, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, emesis, or enteritis upon imaging. A nondescript rash, headache, conjunctivitis, and irritability are common, cough much less so – under 25%.
“The thought is that if any one of these is associated with a fever lasting more than 4 days, we suggest these children be brought in and seen by a pediatrician. We don’t have a formal guideline – we’re working on that – but basically the current recommendation is to screen them initially with a CBC with differential, a chem 10, and liver function tests, but also to look for inflammatory markers that we see in our COVID patients. We’ve been quite surprised: These patients have C-reactive proteins of about 240 mg/L on average, ferritin is quite high at around 1,200 ng/mL, and d-dimers of 2,300 ng/mL. We’ve also found very high brain natriuretic peptides and troponins in these patients,” according to Dr. Conway.
Analogies have been made between this COVID-19 pediatric syndrome and Kawasaki disease. Dr. Conway is unconvinced.
“This is quite different from Kawasaki in that these children are usually thrombocytopenic and usually present with DIC [disseminated intravascular coagulation], and the d-dimers are extraordinarily high, compared to what we’re used to seeing in pediatric patients,” he said.
Symptomatic children with laboratory red flags should be hospitalized. Most of the affected New York City children have recovered after 5 or 6 days in the pediatric ICU with empiric treatment using intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), corticosteroids, and/or interleukin-6 inhibitors. However, five recent deaths are now under study.
Dr. Yealy commented that this new pediatric syndrome is “really interesting,” but to date, it affects only a very small percentage of children, and children overall have been much less affected by the pandemic than are adults.
“The populations being disproportionately impacted are the elderly, the elderly, the elderly, and then other vulnerable populations, particularly congregants and the poor,” he said. “At my site, three-quarters of the patients coming in are either patients at assisted-living facilities or work at one of those congregant facilities.”
The pandemic’s impact on medical education
In many hospitals, grand rounds are being done virtually via videoconferencing, often with attendant challenges in asking and answering questions. Hospital patient volumes are diminished. Medical students aren’t coming in to do clinical rotations. Medical students and residents can’t travel to interview for future residencies or jobs.
“It’s affecting education across all of the components of medicine. It’s hard to say how long this pandemic is going to last. We’re all trying to be innovative in using online tools, but I believe it’s going to have a long-lasting effect on our education system,” Dr. Marcolini predicted.
Remote interface while working from home has become frustrating, especially during peak Internet use hours.
“It’s staggering how slow my home system has become in comparison to what’s wired at work. Now many times when you try to get into your work system from home, you time out while you’re waiting for the next piece of information to come across,” Dr. Kaplan commented.
All panel participants reported having no financial conflicts of interest.
*Correction, 5/15/20: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the American College of Emergency Physicians.)