Cape Fear area doctors say new COVID symptoms will help paint better picture of virus’ spread

Updated: Apr. 28, 2020 at 5:05 PM EDT
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SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - While most patients diagnosed with the novel coronavirus exhibit the hallmarks of the infection — shortness of breath, high fever and a cough — a growing number are displaying more flu-like symptoms.

This led to the Centers for Disease Control to issue an update to its symptom guidance, adding six additional symptoms to what physicians and public health departments should consider as signs of the virus.

These “new” symptoms are headaches, sore throat, muscle pains or aches, chills or repeated shaking and the sudden loss of the ability to smell or taste, with the CDC saying those with a combination of those symptoms may be experiencing a COVID-19 infection.

Dr. Paul Kamitsuka, leading epidemiologist from New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Wilmington Health, says the addition of new symptoms is significant because it will help capture a population of COVID-19 patients that otherwise may have been turned away for testing.

“As we have gained more experience with this disease, this infection and also, as our testing availability has improved, I think it is very appropriate to expand the symptoms that would trigger testing,” he said. “So initially we were focusing on people who presented with fever and lower respiratory symptoms like cough or shortness of breath, but clearly, people can present with less severe symptoms, or other symptoms.”

Kamitsuka says there is still much to be learned about the virus and how it affects the human body. While severe cases usually result in the same severe complications, primarily pneumonia, he said evidence is growing that the virus is causing an inflammatory response, resulting in things like blood clots and cardiovascular issues.

What remains to be seen, he said, is why.

“What we need to sort of tease out is how much of that is due to the virus itself, or due to someone being severely ill and under a lot of physiological stress,” he said.

Dr. Justin Asbury from Novant Health and the Brunswick County Health and Human Services Advisory Board said these additional symptoms, and the additional testing they will lead to, may help drive policy decisions when it comes to moving back in the direction of “normal” life.

“[These symptoms] can seem nonspecific and there’s a lot of overlap unfortunately with other respiratory illnesses, but I do think it still helps us get a better gauge as far as who should be tested as we move forward into opening things back up,” he said. “Having a subset of symptoms that we are aware of, that this is associated with and testing those individuals quickly and efficiently, and being able to isolate those potential pockets of where things may spike up will help us continue to move forward and not have to be so aggressive and shut down systematically across across the board.”

In Brunswick County, Asbury said they too are seeing mostly the “hallmark” symptoms of lower-respiratory distress and high fever, particularly because the affected population in that area skews older.

While a clearer picture may help with re-opening parts of life in the long term, both Asbury and Kamitsuka said the virus isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and social distancing will be a necessary part of life for months to come.

“I think that’s the importance of being strong and strong as a community that we do follow the isolation guidelines and recommendations for this because what may be minor symptoms for somebody can still transfer to somebody else and be so much more severe,” Asbury said.

Kamitsuka said the unknowns of the virus are simply further illustrated by the fact the CDC added symptoms at this point.

“One thing that’s clear about this virus as compared to other viruses that have emerged similarly is just how contagious it is, and also the phenomenon of asymptomatic transmission. So it’s proved to be the kind of virus you really don’t want to have introduced into a non-immune population, because it spreads rapidly and can cause severe disease in a certain portion.”

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