May 19, 2020
This year’s spring allergy season has been greatly overshadowed by the arrival of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The presence of COVID-19 is affecting everyone and many allergists’ practices have slowed to a crawl because of state-wide limitations in non-essential medical visits and testing, and because of the risk to providers and their staff as well as to patients from COVID-19 infection and transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued many guidelines for healthcare providers, which include the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and the evaluation and testing of patients suspected of being infected with COVID-19. It has become more important than ever to recognize the differences between allergies and infection with COVID-19. Educating staff and patients to recognize the differences is paramount in appropriately screening those who may otherwise need isolation or referral based on rapidly evolving state and federal guidelines.
COVID-19 is the name for the viral respiratory syndrome caused by infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus in a family of viruses causing diseases ranging from the common cold to more severe syndromes such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The word “novel” has been used to describe COVID-19 because it is a new strain not previously identified in humans.
COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. The most common signs and symptoms occurring within two to 14 days after exposure include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The median length of time for presentation is five days. Older adults and those with underlying chronic health conditions such as lung disease, heart disease and diabetes appear to be at greater risk for developing severe complications.
What are the key differences in presentation between allergies and COVID-19 infection?
Allergic symptoms typically include nasal congestion, runny nose and sneezing, itchy, swollen and watery eyes. Allergic asthma may present as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Dry and itchy skin rashes are common. Headaches and fatigue are associated symptoms in some people. Fever is not a symptom of allergy.
Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever (90%), a dry cough (68%), fatigue, sputum production (33%), shortness of breath (19%), sore throat (14%), myalgias, and rarely, diarrhea. Nasal congestion was present only in 5% of patients and conjunctival injection only in 0.8% of presenting cases according to early WHO reports. SARS-CoV-2 can cause a mild follicular conjunctivitis, and transmission via aerosol contact with conjunctiva is likely. Additional reports have suggested that loss of taste or smell may be important early symptoms of the disease, and as a sole symptom, may be a reason for testing for COVID-19. The CDC lists cough and shortness of breath as representative symptoms, and has newly listed fever, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell as potential symptoms of COVID-19. Additional skin symptoms, such as lesions on the feet and toes, resembling “chilblains”, may well be a manifestation of the disease.
Traditional influenza appears to be on a significant decrease in the community, but it is still difficult to distinguish between influenza types A and B, the common cold and COVID-19 without formal testing. The common cold does not typically present with fevers, and symptoms are much milder, often involving nasal congestion and mucus production. Recent social distancing measures have also contributed to notable declines in true influenza activity in additional to seasonal variation.
A useful infographic that lists the differences in symptoms between COVID-19, allergies and other common infections may be found here.
Information from the WHO regarding symptom presentation and transmission can be found here:
What are the key clinical characteristics of COVID-19?
Person to person viral transmission is now firmly entrenched locally within the United States (as opposed to only from high-risk travelers from sites of initial outbreaks, such as China, South Korea, Iran and Italy). On January 22, 2020, the CDC reported one case of COVID-19 infection within the United States. As of May 18, 2020, the CDC is reporting almost 1.5 million cases and 90,000 deaths in this country.
Transmission is thought to be via droplet spread and through fomites, and some studies suggest that the virus may remain viable on surfaces for up to three days, possibly longer. Some have argued that “superspreader” events may reflect aerosolized transmission, but this has yet to be confirmed in rigorous studies. The CDC recommends the use of appropriate PPE for any aerosol generating procedures, which includes testing patients (nasal swabs), the use of nebulizers, peak flow meters, spirometry. Transmission may occur from asymptomatic individuals.
Up to 80% of cases of COVID-19 are considered mild to moderate, including both pneumonia and non-pneumonia subtypes, 13.8% have severe disease and 6.1% are critical, presenting with respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or multiple organ dysfunction/failure. The proportion of patients with truly asymptomatic presentation (who don’t otherwise ultimately present with symptoms) is not known. Disease in children is uncommon and mild, with only a very small proportion of those aged under 19 years developing severe (2.5%) or critical disease (0.2%).
A new probable complication of COVID-19 infection in children known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) is the occurrence of a severe inflammatory syndrome with Kawasaki disease-like features and/or shock in children with laboratory evidence of SARS-CoV-2 or known exposure to COVID-19. The CDC health advisory concerning MIS-C can be found here.
Mortality rates for those under 60 years of age are less than 1%, from 60 to 69 years of age - 3.5%, 70 to79 years of age - 8%, and over 80 years of age - 15%. These figures are highly influenced by the presence of co-morbid disease in each age group and may as well be influenced by the burden of disease presenting to local centers or epicenters, with the potential for critical supply shortages. The New England Journal of Medicine, for example, has discussed the ethical values for rationing health resources in a pandemic in a recent article.
More information and a COVID-19 summary can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/summary.html
How to keep your patients safe
Recent community efforts to minimize disease impact now focus on mitigation rather than containment, although contact tracing and public health efforts remain of paramount importance. Mitigation relies on reducing the caseload or slowing the infection rate on any given date so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system and has been referred to as “flattening the curve”.
Steps to reduce disease burden include appropriate phone pre-screening of clinic patients to ask about symptoms such as fever, new onset cough, or recent exposure to COVID-19 infection. These patients may be referred to appropriate local screening centers in lieu of your office. It is important to remain up to date regarding any state or local requirements concerning testing and referral of suspected cases and to have strict procedures in place in your office, even if COVID-19 is not yet present in your community.
Explanatory signage in your office should be readily visible before the patients check in, with means of isolation readily available and the staff trained to ask appropriate questions.
Social distancing, school closures and cancelling events are now in effect for most states as a means of reducing and slowing transmission of the virus. Mandatory “stay at home” orders have been in place in the most heavily affected regions, although many states are beginning to ease up on the most severe restrictions. Patients and staff who are acutely ill should stay at home unless they are severely ill, and their condition warrants medical evaluation. Even in regions where “stay at home” orders are not in place, patients on regular allergy injections, especially the elderly and those from higher risk groups may be advised to forestall their office visits, especially if their risk for exposure (such as the use of public transit, exposure to crowds, lack of safe distancing) is greater.
In the office itself, coughing, sneezing, and medical procedures that increase the presence of aerosolized particles, especially in confined spaces, increase the risk for transmission. This includes intubation, extubation, bronchoscopy, nebulizer therapy, spirometry, sputum induction and rhinoscopy—all considered high-risk exposure.
Providers who wear a gown, gloves, eye protection and a facemask (instead of a respirator) during an aerosol-generating procedure are considered to have a medium-risk exposure. Additional resources regarding correct use of PPE can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/guidance-risk-assesment-hcp.html
How to manage patients with asthma and other allergic and immunological diseases
There are no strong data at present regarding the management of asthma in association with COVD-19 co-infection. If an asthma or COPD exacerbation is likely, then typical treatment measures, such as use of corticosteroids, should be entertained. However, the routine use of corticosteroids in patients with COVID-19 without obstructive lung disease is NOT advised, since this may prolong viral replication.
As always, patients with asthma should be well controlled and should not stop any of their medications. This also applies to the use of biologic therapies for asthma and associated diseases when used to maintain good asthma control. Many of these therapies are now available as self-injectable syringes and changing office-based injectables to home administration via self-administered syringe, will allow patients to stay at home and will further limit their exposure to potential viral transmission.
Additional information for your patients on COVID-19 and asthma can be found here: https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/asthma-library/covid-asthma
Patients with primary immunodeficiencies or who are taking immunosuppressant medication are likely at higher risk from infection, and consideration should also be given to rescheduling well patient visits and having them remain at home in self-isolation for the time being.
A recent special article on Pandemic Contingency Planning for the Allergy and Immunology Clinic put forward by the AAAAI, in collaboration with the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) and the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (CSACI), can be found here.
More specifically, information concerning the Administration of Subcutaneous Allergen Immunotherapy during the COVID-19 Outbreak can be found here.
Additional CDC management guidelines may be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-guidance-management-patients.html
Information for those patients at serious risk of disease can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html
Are there any specific treatments for COVID-19?
Other than supportive care, there have been no approved treatments for COVID-19 despite a flurry of coverage over false medical claims in the lay press and on social media. More than 300 clinical trials have been established internationally and at least 50 candidate vaccines are under study. Convalescent sera are also being studied. An editorial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine deals in particular with chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which have been touted widely in the media, but are as of yet unproven therapies and have no indication for prophylaxis, with a risk for serious adverse events.
The Infectious Diseases Society of America has issued recommendations regarding the treatment and management of patients with COVID-19. Of note, any therapeutic recommendations are currently only in the context of an ongoing clinical trial. The Journal of the American Medical Association has a page dedicated to updates in the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19.
As many states are now reopening, clinical practices need to develop new frameworks and adapt to a completely new environment while the pandemic continues to evolve. Many decisions will rely on state and local ordinances taking into account the local level of prevalence and transmission of COVID-19. The CDC has recommendations regarding a framework for provision of non-COVID-19 health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the COVID-19 Response Task Force of the AAAAI has put forward a document with Suggestions or Considerations for Resuming Practices. Everything in this document presumes that the actual infectious state of patients is unknown and that asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic patients can spread the virus, and takes into account levels of risk of different procedures inherent to allergy and immunology practices.
Self-isolation, up to and including mandatory quarantine has been recommended to limit the spread of the disease and is indicated for anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and for those with presumptive infection (cough, fever, fatigue) with mild symptoms. For patients and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19, or to those travelling and returning from a high-risk country, recommendations may also include self-isolation for a 14-day period. These interventions are evolving, and more precise information may be found at the federal, state and local levels.
There are updated guidelines in place for when infected persons can safely return to work. A symptom-based strategy for those on home isolation includes the following: at least three days have passed since recovery (resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms) in addition to 10 days having passed since symptoms first appeared.
A test-based strategy includes resolution of symptoms as above, in addition to negative results from at least two consecutive nasopharyngeal swabs collected ≥ 24 hours apart.
Healthcare personnel with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 who have not had any symptoms should be excluded from work until 10 days have passed since the date of their first positive COVID-19 diagnostic test if they have remained asymptomatic.
More information may be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-hospitalized-patients.html
Common sense measures for everyone
Measures to reduce risk of infection and transmission of COVID-19 include:
- Washing hands and using a sanitizing hand wash containing at least 60% alcohol.
- Refraining from touching your face.
- Avoiding close contact, such as staying six feet away from other people or self-isolating, especially if in a high-risk group.
- Staying home if you’re sick or staying at home in general and avoiding large crowds. Pay attention to state and local directives.
- Covering your mouth and nose when coughing with your elbow or a tissue. Dispose of your tissue immediately afterward.
- Wearing a face mask if you’re sick. The CDC now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission, reserving surgical and N95 masks for health-care providers.
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces regularly.
AAAAI’s Resources for A/I Clinicians during the COVID-19 Pandemic
A Physician’s Guide to COVID-19
CDC COVID-19 Hub
WHO Coronavirus Information and Guidance