From the Journals

Many children with COVID-19 present without classic symptoms



Most children who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 had no respiratory illness, according to data from a retrospective study of 22 patients at a single center.

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To date, children account for less than 5% of COVID-19 cases in the United States, but details of the clinical presentations in children are limited, wrote Rabia Agha, MD, and colleagues of Maimonides Children’s Hospital, Brooklyn, N.Y.

In a study published in Hospital Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from 22 children aged 0-18 years who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and were admitted to a single hospital over a 4-week period from March 18, 2020, to April 15, 2020.

Overall, 9 patients (41%) presented with a respiratory illness, and 7 (32%) required respiratory support. Of four patients requiring mechanical ventilation, two had underlying pulmonary disease. The other two patients who required intubation were one with cerebral palsy and status epilepticus and one who presented in a state of cardiac arrest.

The study population ranged from 11 days to 18 years of age, but 45% were infants younger than 1 year. None of the children had a travel history that might increase their risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection; 27% had confirmed exposure to the virus.

Most of the children (82%) were hospitalized within 3 days of the onset of symptoms, and no deaths occurred during the study period. The most common symptom was fever without a source in five (23%) otherwise healthy infants aged 11-35 days. All five of these children underwent a sepsis evaluation, received empiric antibiotics, and were discharged home with negative bacterial cultures within 48-72 hours. Another 10 children had fever in combination with other symptoms.

Other presenting symptoms were respiratory (9), fatigue (6), seizures (2), and headache (1).

Most children with respiratory illness were treated with supportive therapy and antibiotics, but three of those on mechanical ventilation also were treated with remdesivir; all three were ultimately extubated.

Neurological abnormalities occurred in two patients: an 11-year-old otherwise healthy boy who presented with fever, headache, confusion, and seizure but ultimately improved without short-term sequelae; and a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who developed new onset seizures and required mechanical ventilation, but ultimately improved to baseline.

Positive PCR results were identified in seven patients (32%) during the second half of the study period who were initially hospitalized for non-COVID related symptoms; four with bacterial infections, two with illnesses of unknown etiology, and one with cardiac arrest. Another two children were completely asymptomatic at the time of admission but then tested positive by PCR; one child had been admitted for routine chemotherapy and the other for social reasons, Dr. Agha and associates said.

The study findings contrast with early data from China in which respiratory illness of varying severity was the major presentation in children with COVID-19, but support a more recent meta-analysis of 551 cases, the researchers noted. The findings also highlight the value of universal testing for children.

“Our initial testing strategy was according to the federal and local guidelines that recommended PCR testing for the symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, or travel to certain countries or close contact with a confirmed case,” Dr. Agha and colleagues said.

“With the implementation of our universal screening strategy of all admitted pediatric patients, we identified 9 (41%) patients with COVID-19 that would have been missed, as they did not meet the then-recommended criteria for testing,” they wrote.

The results suggest the need for broader guidelines to test pediatric patients because children presenting with other illnesses may be positive for SARS-CoV-2 as well, the researchers said.

“Testing of all hospitalized patients will not only identify cases early in the course of their admission process, but will also help prevent inadvertent exposure of other patients and health care workers, assist in cohorting infected patients, and aid in conservation of personal protective equipment,” Dr. Agha and associates concluded.

The current study is important as clinicians continue to learn about how infection with SARS-CoV-2 presents in different populations, Diana Lee, MD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, said in an interview.

“Understanding how it can present in the pediatric population is important in identifying children who may have the infection and developing strategies for testing,” she said.

“I was not surprised by the finding that most children did not present with the classic symptoms of COVID-19 in adults based on other published studies and my personal clinical experience taking care of hospitalized children in New York City,” said Dr. Lee. “Studies from the U.S. and other countries have reported that fewer children experience fever, cough, and shortness of breath [compared with] adults, and that most children have a milder clinical course, though there is a small percentage of children who can have severe or critical illness,” she said.

“A multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children associated with COVID-19 has also emerged and appears to be a postinfectious process with a presentation that often differs from classic COVID-19 infection in adults,” she added.

The take-home message for clinicians is the reminder that SARS-CoV-2 infection often presents differently in children than in adults, said Dr. Lee.

“Children who present to the hospital with non-classic COVID-19 symptoms or with other diagnoses may be positive for SARS-CoV-2 on testing. Broadly testing hospitalized children for SARS-CoV-2 and instituting appropriate isolation precautions may help to protect other individuals from being exposed to the virus,” she said.

“Further research is needed to understand which individuals are contagious and how to accurately distinguish those who are infectious versus those who are not,” said Dr. Lee. “There have been individuals who persistently test positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA (the genetic material of the virus), but were not found to have virus in their bodies that can replicate and thereby infect others,” she emphasized. “Further study is needed regarding the likelihood of household exposures in children with SARS-CoV-2 infection given that this study was done early in the epidemic in New York City when testing and contact tracing was less established,” she said.

The study received no outside funding. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Lee had no financial conflicts to disclose.

SOURCE: Agha R et al. Hosp Pediatr. 2020 July. doi: 10.1542/hpeds.2020-000257.

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