A study of post–COVID-19 patients in the United Kingdom who developed severe lung inflammation after they left the hospital may provide greater clarity on which patients are most likely to have persistent lung dysfunction.
In addition to pinpointing those most at risk, theshowed that conventional corticosteroid treatment is highly effective in improving lung function and reducing symptoms.
Researchers from Guy’s and St. Thomas’ National Health Foundation Trust in London reported that a small percentage of patients – 4.8%, or 35 of 837 patients in the study – had severe persistent interstitial lung disease (ILD), mostly organizing pneumonia, 4 weeks after discharge. Of these patients, 30 received steroid treatment, all of whom showed improvement in lung function.
Lead author Katherine Jane Myall, MRCP, and colleagues wrote that the most common radiologic finding in acute COVID-19 is bilateral ground-glass opacification, and findings of organizing pneumonia are common. However, no reports exist of the role of inflammatory infiltrates during recovery from COVID-19 or of the effectiveness of treatments for persistent ILD. “The long-term respiratory morbidity remains unclear,” Dr. Myall and colleagues wrote.
The study findings are significant because they quantify the degree of lung disease that patients have after COVID-19, said Sachin Gupta, MD, FCCP, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Alameda Health System in Oakland, Calif. He added that the disease course and presentation followed the pattern of organizing pneumonia in some patients, and traditional corticosteroid therapy seemed to resolve symptoms and improve lung function.
“This is a really important piece to get out there because it describes what a lot of us are worried about in patients with post-COVID lung disease and about what type of lung disease they have. It offers a potential treatment,” he said.
Dr. Myall and colleagues noted that even a “relatively small proportion” of patients with persistent, severe ILD – as reported in this study – pose “a significant disease burden.” They added: “Prompt therapy may avoid potentially permanent fibrosis and functional impairment.”
The single-center, prospective, observational study followed discharged patients with telephone calls 4 weeks after discharge to determine their status. At that point, 39% of the study cohort (n = 325) reported ongoing symptoms.
The patients had outpatient examinations at 6 weeks post discharge, at which time 42.9% (n = 138) had no signs or symptoms of persistent disease; 33.8% (n = 110) had symptoms but no radiologic findings and received referrals to other departments; and 24% (n = 77) were referred to the post-COVID lung disease multidisciplinary team. A total of 59 were diagnosed with persistent post-COVID interstitial change, 35 of whom had organizing pneumonia, hence the rationale for using steroids in this group, Dr. Myall and colleagues stated.
The 30 patients treated with corticosteroids received a maximum initial dose of 0.5 mg/kg prednisolone, which was rapidly weaned over 3 weeks. Some patients received lower doses depending on their comorbidities.
Treatment resulted in an average relative increase in transfer factor of 31.6% (P < .001) and forced vital capacity of 9.6% (P = .014), along with significant improvement in symptoms and x-ray signs.
The study identified some key characteristics of the patients who had persistent post–COVID-19 inflammatory ILD. They were mostly male (71.5%) and overweight with an average body mass index of 28.3, but only 26% were obese. Most had at least one comorbidity, with the most common being diabetes and asthma (22.9%). Their average hospital stay was 16.9 days, 82.9% required oxygen, 55% were in the ICU, and 46% needed invasive mechanical ventilation.
The patients most vulnerable to ILD and organizing pneumonia were the “sicker” of the whole cohort, Dr. Gupta said. “In one sense, it’s reassuring that this is not just happening in anyone; this is happening in patients who had the worst course and were hospitalized in the ICU for the most part.”
The study shows that identifying these patients early on and initiating steroid therapy could avoid persistent lung injury and scarring, Dr. Gupta said.
The London researchers noted that theirs wasn’t a radiologic study, so CT scans weren’t formally scored before and after treatment. They also acknowledged vagueness about imaging and clinical findings representing “nothing other than slow ongoing recovery.”
Patients with post–COVID-19 ILD will require ongoing follow-up to better understand the disease course, Dr. Myall and colleagues stated, although they predicted organizing pneumonia is unlikely to recur once it resolves.
Dr. Myall and coauthors had no relevant relationships to disclose. Dr. Gupta disclosed he is also an employee and shareholder at Genentech.