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Months After Recovery, COVID-19 Survivors Often Have Persistent Lung Trouble

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Lung function test
Caption: Testing breathing capacity with a spirometer. Credit: iStock/Koldunov

The pandemic has already claimed far too many lives in the United States and around the world. Fortunately, as doctors have gained more experience in treating coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), more people who’ve been hospitalized eventually will recover. This raises an important question: what does recovery look like for them?

Because COVID-19 is still a new condition, there aren’t a lot of data out there yet to answer that question. But a recent study of 55 people recovering from COVID-19 in China offers some early insight into the recovery of lung function [1]. The results make clear that—even in those with a mild-to-moderate infection—the effects of COVID-19 can persist in the lungs for months. In fact, three months after leaving the hospital about 70 percent of those in the study continued to have abnormal lung scans, an indication that the lungs are still damaged and trying to heal.

The findings in EClinicalMedicine come from a team in Henan Province, China, led by Aiguo Xu, The First Affiliated Hospital of Zhengzhou University; Yanfeng Gao, Zhengzhou University; and Hong Luo, Guangshan People’s Hospital. They’d heard about reports of lung abnormalities in patients discharged from the hospital. But it wasn’t clear how long those problems stuck around.

To find out, the researchers enrolled 55 men and women who’d been admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 three months earlier. Some of the participants, whose average age was 48, had other health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease. But none had any pre-existing lung problems.

Most of the patients had mild or moderate respiratory illness while hospitalized. Only four of the 55 had been classified as severely ill. Fourteen patients required supplemental oxygen while in the hospital, but none needed mechanical ventilation.

Three months after discharge from the hospital, all of the patients were able to return to work. But they continued to have lingering symptoms of COVID-19, including shortness of breath, cough, gastrointestinal problems, headache, or fatigue.

Evidence of this continued trouble also showed up in their lungs. Thirty-nine of the study’s participants had an abnormal result in their computed tomography (CT) lung scan, which creates cross-sectional images of the lungs. Fourteen individuals (1 in 4) also showed reduced lung function in breathing tests.

Interestingly, the researchers found that those who went on to have more lasting lung problems also had elevated levels of D-dimer, a protein fragment that arises when a blood clot dissolves. They suggest that a D-dimer test might help to identify those with COVID-19 who would benefit from pulmonary rehabilitation to rebuild their lung function, even in the absence of severe respiratory symptoms.

This finding also points to the way in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus seems to enhance a tendency toward blood clotting—a problem addressed in our Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) public-private partnership. The partnership recently initiated a trial of blood thinners. That trial will start out by focusing on newly diagnosed outpatients and hospitalized patients, but will go on to include a component related to convalescence.

Moving forward, it will be important to conduct larger and longer-term studies of COVID-19 recovery in people of diverse backgrounds to continue to learn more about what it means to survive COVID-19. The new findings certainly indicate that for many people who’ve been hospitalized with COVID-19, regaining normal lung function may take a while. As we learn even more about the underlying causes and long-term consequences of this new infectious disease, let’s hope it will soon lead to insights that will help many more COVID-19 long-haulers and their concerned loved ones breathe easier.

Reference:

[1] Follow-up study of the pulmonary function and related physiological characteristics of COVID-19 survivors three months after recovery. Zhao YM, Shang YM, Song WB, Li QQ, Xie H, Xu QF, Jia JL, Li LM, Mao HL, Zhou XM, Luo H, Gao YF, Xu AG. EClinicalMedicine.2020 Aug 25:100463

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

How the Lungs Work (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Computed Tomography (CT) (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Zhengzhou University (Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, China)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)


Breakthrough Infections in Vaccinated People Less Likely to Cause ‘Long COVID’

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Long Covid. Two syringes in an arrow pointed down. symptoms of long covid in the background

There’s no question that vaccines are making a tremendous difference in protecting individuals and whole communities against infection and severe illness from SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And now, there’s yet another reason to get the vaccine: in the event of a breakthrough infection, people who are fully vaccinated also are substantially less likely to develop Long COVID Syndrome, which causes brain fog, muscle pain, fatigue, and a constellation of other debilitating symptoms that can last for months after recovery from an initial infection.

These important findings published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases are the latest from the COVID Symptom Study [1]. This study allows everyday citizens in the United Kingdom to download a smartphone app and self-report data on their infection, symptoms, and vaccination status over a long period of time.

Previously, the study found that 1 in 20 people in the U.K. who got COVID-19 battled Long COVID symptoms for eight weeks or more. But this work was done before vaccines were widely available. What about the risk among those who got COVID-19 for the first time as a breakthrough infection after receiving a double dose of any of the three COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca) authorized for use in the U.K.?

To answer that question, Claire Steves, King’s College, London, and colleagues looked to frequent users of the COVID Symptom Study app on their smartphones. In its new work, Steves’ team was interested in analyzing data submitted by folks who’d logged their symptoms, test results, and vaccination status between December 9, 2020, and July 4, 2021. The team found there were more than 1.2 million adults who’d received a first dose of vaccine and nearly 1 million who were fully vaccinated during this period.

The data show that only 0.2 percent of those who were fully vaccinated later tested positive for COVID-19. While accounting for differences in age, sex, and other risk factors, the researchers found that fully vaccinated individuals who developed breakthrough infections were about half (49 percent) as likely as unvaccinated people to report symptoms of Long COVID Syndrome lasting at least four weeks after infection.

The most common symptoms were similar in vaccinated and unvaccinated adults with COVID-19, and included loss of smell, cough, fever, headaches, and fatigue. However, all of these symptoms were milder and less frequently reported among the vaccinated as compared to the unvaccinated.

Vaccinated people who became infected were also more likely than the unvaccinated to be asymptomatic. And, if they did develop symptoms, they were half as likely to report multiple symptoms in the first week of illness. Another vaccination benefit was that people with a breakthrough infection were about a third as likely to report any severe symptoms. They also were more than 70 percent less likely to require hospitalization.

We still have a lot to learn about Long COVID, and, to get the answers, NIH has launched the RECOVER Initiative. The initiative will study tens of thousands of COVID-19 survivors to understand why many individuals don’t recover as quickly as expected, and what might be the cause, prevention, and treatment for Long COVID.

In the meantime, these latest findings offer the encouraging news that help is already here in the form of vaccines, which provide a very effective way to protect against COVID-19 and greatly reduce the odds of Long COVID if you do get sick. So, if you haven’t done so already, make a plan to protect your own health and help end this pandemic by getting yourself fully vaccinated. Vaccines are free and available near to you—just go to vaccines.gov or text your zip code to 438829.

Reference:

[1] Risk factors and disease profile of post-vaccination SARS-CoV-2 infection in UK users of the COVID Symptom Study app: a prospective, community-based, nested, case-control study. Antonelli M, Penfold RS, Merino J, Sudre CH, Molteni E, Berry S, Canas LS, Graham MS, Klaser K, Modat M, Murray B, Kerfoot E, Chen L, Deng J, Österdahl MF, Cheetham NJ, Drew DA, Nguyen LH, Pujol JC, Hu C, Selvachandran S, Polidori L, May A, Wolf J, Chan AT, Hammers A, Duncan EL, Spector TD, Ourselin S, Steves CJ. Lancet Infect Dis. 2021 Sep 1:S1473-3099(21)00460-6.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Claire Steves (King’s College London, United Kingdom)

COVID Symptom Study


U.S. Surgeon General on Emotional Well-Being and Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

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From September 2019 to September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 90,000 overdose deaths in the United States. These latest data on the nation’s opioid crisis offer another stark reminder that help is desperately needed in communities across the land. NIH’s research efforts to address the opioid crisis have been stressed during the pandemic, but creative investigators have come up with workarounds like wider use of telemedicine to fill the gap.

Much of NIH’s work on the opioid crisis is supported by the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. Recently, the more-than 500 investigators supported by HEAL came together virtually for their second annual meeting to discuss the initiative’s latest research progress and challenges.

As part of the meeting, I had a conversation with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General. Dr. Murthy served as the 19th U.S. Surgeon General under the Obama Administration and was recently confirmed as the 21st Surgeon General under the Biden Administration. In his first term as America’s Doctor, in which I had the privilege of working with him, Dr. Murthy created initiatives to tackle our country’s most urgent public health issues, including addiction and the opioid crisis. He also issued the nation’s first Surgeon General’s Report on addiction, presenting the latest scientific data and issuing a call to action to recognize addiction as a chronic illness—and not a moral failing.

In 2016, Dr. Murthy sent a letter to 2.3 million healthcare professionals urging them to join a movement to tackle the opioid epidemic. This was the first time in the history of the office that a Surgeon General had issued a letter calling the medical profession to action on this issue. In 2017, Dr. Murthy focused his attention on chronic stress and isolation as prevalent problems with profound implications for health, productivity, and happiness.

Our conversation during the HEAL meeting took place via videoconference, with the Surgeon General connecting from Washington, D.C., and me linking in from my home in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:


Collins: Welcome, Dr. Murthy. We’ve known each other for a few years, and I know that you’ve talked extensively about the national epidemic of loneliness. What have you learned about loneliness and how it affects our emotional wellbeing?

Murthy: Thanks, Francis. Loneliness and perceived social isolation are profound challenges for communities struggling with addiction, including opioid use disorders. I had no real background in these issues when I started as Surgeon General in 2014. I was educated by people I met all across the country, who in their own way would tell me their stories of isolation and loneliness. It’s a common stressor, especially for those who struggle with opioid use disorders. Stress can be a trigger for relapse. It’s also connected with overdose attempts and overdose deaths.

But loneliness is bigger than addiction. It is not just a bad feeling. Loneliness increases our risk of anxiety and depression, dementia, cardiac disease, and a host of other conditions. However you cut it, addressing social isolation and loneliness is an important public-health issue if we care about addiction, if we care about mental health—if we care about the physical wellbeing of people in our country.

Collins: Vivek, you made the diagnosis of an epidemic of American loneliness back before COVID-19 came along. With the emergence of COVID-19 a little more than a year ago, it caused us to isolate ourselves even more. Now that you’re back as Surgeon General and seeing the consequences of the worst pandemic in 103 years, is loneliness even worse now than before the pandemic?

Murthy: I think there are many people for whom that sense of isolation and loneliness has increased during the pandemic. But the pandemic has been a very heterogenous experience. There are some people who have found themselves more surrounded by their extended family or a close set of friends. That has been, in many ways, a luxury. For many people who are on the frontlines as essential workers, whose jobs don’t permit them to just pick up and leave and visit extended family, these have been very stressful and isolating times.

So, I am worried. And I’m particularly worried about young people—adolescents and young adults. They already had high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide before the pandemic, and they’re now struggling with loneliness. I mention this because young people are so hyperconnected by technology, they seem to be on TikTok and Instagram all the time. They seem to be chatting with their friends constantly, texting all the time. How could they feel isolated or lonely?

But one of the things that has become increasingly clear is what matters when it comes to loneliness is the quality of your human connections, not the quantity. For many young people that I spoke to while traveling across the country, they would say that, yes, we’re connected to people all the time. But we don’t necessarily feel like we can always be ourselves in our social media environment. That’s where comparison culture is at its height. That’s where we feel like our lives are always falling short, whether it’s not having a fancy enough job, not having as many friends, or not having the right clothing or other accessories.

We talk a lot about resilience in our country. But how do we develop more resilient people? One of the keys is to recognize that social connections are an important source of resilience. They are our natural buffers for stress. When hard things happen in our lives, so many of us just instinctively will pick up the phone to call a friend. Or we’ll get into the car and go visit a member of our family or church. The truth is, if we want to build a society that’s healthier mentally and physically, that is more resilient, and that is also more happy and fulfilled, we have to think about how we build a society that is more centered around human connection and around relationships.

My hope is that one of the things we will reevaluate is building a people-centered society. That means designing workplaces that allow people to prioritize relationships. It means designing schools that equip our children with social and emotional learning tools to build healthy relationships from the earliest ages. It means thinking about public policy, not from just the standpoint of financial impact but in terms of how it impacts communities and how it can fracture communities.

We have an opportunity to do that now, but it won’t happen by default. We have to think through this very proactively, and it starts with our own lives. What does it mean for each of us to live a truly people-centered life? What decisions would we make differently about work, about how we spend time, about where we put our attention and energy?

Collins: Those are profound and very personal words that I think we can all relate to. Let me ask you about another vulnerable population that we care deeply about. There are 50 million Americans who are living with chronic pain, invisible to many, especially during the pandemic, for whom being even more isolated has been particularly rough—and who are perhaps in a circumstance where getting access to medical care has been challenging. As Surgeon General, are you also looking closely at the folks with chronic pain?

Murthy: You’re right, the populations that were more vulnerable pre-pandemic have really struggled during this pandemic—whether that’s getting medications for treatment, needed counseling services, or taking part in social support groups, which are an essential part of the overall treatment approach and staying in recovery. It’s a reminder of how urgent it is for us, number one, to improve access to healthcare in our country. We’ve made huge strides in this area, but millions are still out of reach of the healthcare system.

A potential silver lining of this pandemic is telemedicine, which has extraordinary potential to improve and extend access to services for people living with substance use disorders. In 2016, I remember visiting a small Alaskan fishing village that you can only get to by boat or plane. In that tiny village of 150 people, I walked into the small cabin where they had first-aid supplies and provided some basic medical care. There I saw a small monitor mounted on the wall and a chair. They told me that the monitor is where people, if they’re dealing with a substance use disorder, come and sit to get counseling services from people in the lower 48 states. I was so struck by that. To know that telemedicine could reach this remote Alaskan village was really extraordinary.

I think the pandemic has accelerated our adoption of telemedicine by perhaps five years or more. But we must sustain this momentum not only with investment in broadband infrastructure, but with other things that seem mundane, like the reimbursement structure around telemedicine. I talk to clinicians now who say they are seeing some private insurers go back on reimbursement for telemedicine because the pandemic is starting to get better. But the lesson learned is not that telemedicine should go away; it’s that we should be integrating it even more deeply into the practice of medicine.

The future of care, I believe, is bringing care closer to where people are, integrating it into their workflow, bringing it to their homes and their neighborhoods. I saw this so clearly for many of the patients I cared for who fell into that category of being in vulnerable populations. They were working two, three jobs, trying to take care of their children at the same time. Having a conversation with them about how they could find time to go to the gym was almost a laughable matter because they were literally dealing with issues of survival and putting food on the table for their kids. As a society we have to do more to understand the lives of people who fall into those categories and provide services that bring what they need to them, as opposed to expecting them to come to us.

If we continue in a purely fee-for-service-based environment where people must go multiple places to get their care, we will not ultimately get care to the vulnerable populations that have struggled the most and that are hoping that we will do better this time around. I think we can. I think we must. And I think COVID may just be, in part, the impetus to move forward in a different way that we need.

Collins: Let’s talk a minute about the specifics of the opioid crisis. If we’re going to move this crisis in the right direction, are there particular areas that you would say we really need more rigorous data in order to convince the medical care system—both the practitioners and the people deciding about reimbursement—that these are things we must do?

Murthy: There are a few areas that come to mind, and I’ve jotted them down. It is so important for us to do research with vulnerable populations, recognizing they often get left out. It’s essential that we conduct studies specifically for these populations so that we can better target interventions to them.

The second area is prevention programs. People want to prevent illnesses. I have not met anybody anywhere in the United States who has said, “I’d rather get diabetes first and treat it versus prevent it in the first place.” As silly as that might sound, it is the exact opposite of how we finance health interventions in our country. We put the lion’s share of our dollars in treatment. We do very little in prevention.

The third piece is the barriers faced by primary-care clinicians, who we want to be at the heart of providing a lot of these treatment services. I’ll tell you, just from my conversations with primary-care docs around the country, they worry about not having enough for their patients in the way of social work and social support services in their offices.
Finally, it has become extraordinarily clear to me that social support is one of the critical elements of treatment for substance use disorders. That it is what helps keep people in recovery. I think about the fact that many people I met who struggle with opioid use disorders had family members who were wondering how they could be helpful. They weren’t sure. They said, “Should I just keep badgering my relative to go to treatment? Should I take a tough love approach? What should I do to be helpful?”

This actually is one of the most pressing issues: social support is most often going to come from family, from friends, and from other community members. So, being able to guide them in an evidence-based way about what measures, what forms actually can be helpful to people struggling with opioid use disorders could also be immensely helpful to a group that is looking to provide assistance and support, but often is struggling to figure out how best to do that.

Collins: Vivek, you were focused as Surgeon General in the Obama Administration on the importance of changing how America thinks about addiction—that it is not a moral failing but a chronic illness that has to be treated with compassion, urgency, skill, and medical intervention. Are we getting anywhere with making that case?

Murthy: Sometimes people shy away from addressing the stigma around addiction because it feels too hard to address. But it is one of the most important issues to address. If people are still feeling judged for their disorders, they are not going to feel comfortable coming forward and getting treatment. And others will hesitate to step up and provide support.

I will always remember the young couple I met in Oklahoma who had lost their son to an opioid overdose. They told me that previously in their life whenever they had a struggle—a job loss or other health issue in the family—neighbors would come over, they would drop off food, they would visit and sit with them in their living room and hold their hands to see if they were okay. When their son died after opioid use disorder, it was silent. Nobody came over. It’s a very common story of how people feel ashamed, they feel uncomfortable, they don’t know quite what to say. So they stay away, which is the worst thing possible during these times of great pain and distress.

I do think we have made progress in the last few years. There are more people stepping forward to tell their stories. There are more people and practitioners who are embracing the importance of talking to their patients about substance use disorders and getting involved in treating them. But the truth is, we still have many people in the country who feel ashamed of what they’re dealing with. We still have many family members who feel that this is a source of shame to have a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder.

To me, this is much bigger than substance use disorders. This is a broader cultural issue of how we think about strength and vulnerability. We have defined strength in modern society as the loudest voice in the room or the person with the most physical prowess, the person who’s aggressive in negotiations, and the person who’s famous.
But I don’t think that’s what strength really is. Strength is so often displayed in moments of vulnerability when people have the courage to open up and be themselves. Strength is defined by the people who have the courage to display love, patience, and compassion, especially when it’s difficult. That’s what real strength is.

One of my hopes is that, as a society, we can ultimately redefine strength. As we think about our children and what we want them to be, we cannot aspire for them to be the loudest voice in the room. We can aspire for them to be the most-thoughtful, the most-welcoming, the most-inviting, the most-compassionate voice in the room.

If we truly want to be a society that’s grounded in love, compassion, and kindness, if we truly recognize those as the sources of strength and healing, we have to value those in our workplaces. They have to be reflected in our promotion systems. We have to value them in the classroom. Ultimately, we’ve got to build our lives around them.

That is a broader lesson that I took from all of the conversations I’ve had with people who struggle with opioid use disorders. What I took was, yes, we need medication and assisted treatment; yes, we need counseling services; yes, we need social services and wraparound services and recovery services. But the engine that will drive our healing is fundamentally the love and compassion that come from human relationships.

We all have the ability to heal because we all have the ability to be kind and to love one another. That’s the lesson that it took me more than two decades to learn in medicine. More important than any prescription that I could write is the compassion that I could extend to patients simply by listening, by showing up, by being present in their lives. We all have that ability, regardless of what degrees follow our name.

Collins: Vivek, this has been a wonderful conversation. We are fortunate to have you as our Surgeon General at this time, when we need lots of love and compassion.

Murthy: Thank you so much, Francis.


Links:

Opioids (National Institute on Drug Abuse/NIH)

Opioid Overdose Crisis (NIDA)

Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

Video: Emotional Well Being and the Power of Connections to Fight the Opioid Epidemic (HEAL/NIH)


Study Finds 1 in 10 Healthcare Workers with Mild COVID Have Lasting Symptoms

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People showing symtoms of anosmia, fatigue, and ageusia
Credit: Getty Images

It’s become increasingly clear that even healthy people with mild cases of COVID-19 can battle a constellation of symptoms that worsen over time—or which sometimes disappear only to come right back. These symptoms are part of what’s called “Long COVID Syndrome.”

Now, a new study of relatively young, healthy adult healthcare workers in Sweden adds needed information on the frequency of this Long COVID Syndrome. Published in the journal JAMA, the study found that just over 1 in 10 healthcare workers who had what at first seemed to be a relatively mild bout of COVID-19 were still coping with at least one moderate to severe symptom eight months later [1]. Those symptoms—most commonly including loss of smell and taste, fatigue, and breathing problems—also negatively affected the work and/or personal lives of these individuals.

These latest findings come from the COVID-19 Biomarker and Immunity (COMMUNITY) study, led by Charlotte Thålin, Danderyd Hospital and Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm. The study, launched a year ago, enlisted 2,149 hospital employees to learn more about immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

After collecting blood samples from participants, the researchers found that about 20 percent already had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, evidence of a past infection. Thålin and team continued collecting blood samples every four months from all participants, who also completed questionnaires about their wellbeing.

Intrigued by recent reports in the medical literature that many people hospitalized with COVID-19 can have persistent symptoms for months after their release, the researchers decided to take a closer look in their COMMUNITY cohort. They did so last January during their third round of follow up.

This group included 323 mostly female healthcare workers, median age of 43. The researchers compared symptoms in this group following mild COVID-19 to the 1,072 mostly female healthcare workers in the study (median age 47 years) who hadn’t had COVID-19. They wanted to find out if those with mild COVID-19 coped with more and longer-lasting symptoms of feeling unwell than would be expected in an otherwise relatively healthy group of people. These symptoms included familiar things such as fatigue, muscle pain, trouble sleeping, and problems breathing.

Their findings show that 26 percent of those who had mild COVID-19 reported at least one moderate to severe symptom that lasted more than two months. That’s compared to 9 percent of participants without COVID-19. What’s more, 11 percent of the individuals with mild COVID-19 had at least one debilitating symptom that lasted for at least eight months. In the group without COVID-19, any symptoms of feeling unwell resolved relatively quickly.

The most common symptoms in the COVID-19 group were loss of taste or smell, fatigue, and breathing problems. In this group, there was no apparent increase in other symptoms that have been associated with COVID-19, including “brain fog,” problems with memory or attention, heart palpitations, or muscle and joint pain.

The researchers have noted that the Swedish healthcare workers represent a relatively young and healthy group of working individuals. Yet, many of them continued to suffer from lasting symptoms related to mild COVID-19. It’s a reminder that COVID-19 can and, in fact, is having a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of adults who are at low risk for developing severe and life-threatening COVID-19. If we needed one more argument for getting young people vaccinated, this is it.

At NIH, efforts have been underway for some time to identify the causes of Long COVID. In fact, a virtual workshop was held last winter with more than 1,200 participants to discuss what’s known and to fill in key gaps in our knowledge of Long COVID syndrome, which is clinically known as post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). Recently, a workshop summary was published [2]. As workshops and studies like this one from Sweden help to define the problem, the hope is to learn one day how to treat or prevent this terrible condition. The NIH is now investing more than $1 billion in seeking those answers.

References:

[1] Symptoms and functional impairment assessed 8 Months after mild COVID-19 among health care workers. Havervall S, Rosell A, Phillipson M, Mangsbo SM, Nilsson P, Hober S, Thålin C. JAMA. 2021 Apr 7.

[2] Toward understanding COVID-19 recovery: National Institutes of Health workshop on postacute COVID-19. Lerner A, et al. Ann Intern Med, 2021 March 30.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Charlotte Thålin (Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden)


Lessons Learned About Substance Use Disorders During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Nora Volkow and Francis Collins in a teleconference from their recent conversation

Every spring, I and my colleague Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), join with leaders across the country in the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. Our role is to discuss NIH’s continued progress in tackling our nation’s opioid crisis. Because of the continued threat of COVID-19 pandemic, we joined in virtually for the second year in a row.

While the demands of the pandemic have been challenging for everyone, biomedical researchers have remained hard at work to address the opioid crisis. Among the many ways that NIH is supporting these efforts is through its Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, which is directing more than $1.5 billion to researchers and communities across the country.

Here’s a condensed transcript of our April 6th video dialogue, which focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people struggling with substance use disorders and those who are trying to help them.

HEAL NIH Helping to End Addition Long-term

Collins: What have we learned so far through HEAL? Well, one thing HEAL is doing is tackling the need for pain treatments that help people avoid the risks of opioids. This research has uncovered new targets and therapeutics for different types of pain, including neuropathic, post-surgical, osteoarthritic, and chemotherapy induced. We’re testing implanted devices, such as electrodes and non-invasive nerve stimulation; and looking at complementary and integrative approaches, such as phone-based physical therapy for low back pain.

Through HEAL, we’ve launched a first-in-human test of a vaccine to protect against the harmful effects of opioids, including relapse and overdose. We’re also testing a tool that provides pharmacists with a validated opioid use disorder risk measure. The goal is to identify better who’s at high risk for opioid addiction and to determine what kind of early intervention could be put in place.

Despite COVID, many clinical studies are now recruiting participants. This includes family-based prevention programs, culturally tailored interventions for hard-hit American Indian populations, and interventions that address social inequities, such as lack of housing.

We are also making progress on the truly heart-breaking problem of babies born dependent on opioids. HEAL has launched a study to test the effectiveness of a new approach to care that measures the severity of a baby’s withdrawal, based on their ability to eat, sleep, and be consoled. This approach helps provide appropriate treatment for these infants, without the use of medication when possible. We’re also developing novel technologies to help treat neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, including a gently vibrating hospital bassinet pad that’s received breakthrough device designation from the FDA.

2020 was an extraordinary year that was tragic in so many ways, including lives lost and economic disasters that have fallen upon families. The resilience and ingenuity of the scientific community has been impressive. Quick pivoting has resulted in some gains through research, maybe you could even call them silver linings in the midst of this terrible storm.

Nora, what’s been at the forefront of your mind as we’ve watched things unfold?

Volkow: When we did this one year ago, we didn’t know what to expect. Obviously, we were concerned that the stressors associated with a pandemic, with unknowns, are factors that have been recognized for many years to increase drug use. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is an increase in drug use of all types across the country.

We have seen an exacerbation of the opioid epidemic, as evidenced by the number of people who have died. Already, in the 12 months ending in July 2020, there was a 24 percent increase in mortality from overdoses. Within those numbers, there was close to a 50 percent increase in mortality associated with fentanyl. We’re also seeing an increase, not just in deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, but in deaths from stimulant drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine. And the largest increases have been very much driven by drug combinations.

So, we have the perfect storm. We have people stressed to their limits by decreases in the economy, the loss of jobs, the death of loved ones. On the other hand, we see dealers taking the opportunity to bring in drugs such as synthetic opioids and synthetic stimulants and distribute them to a much wider extent than previously seen.

Collins: On top of that, people are at risk of getting sick from COVID-19. What have we learned about the risks of coronavirus illness for people who use drugs?

Volkow: It is a double whammy. When you look at the electronic health records about the outcomes of people diagnosed with substance use disorders, you consistently see an increased risk for getting infected with COVID-19. And if you look at those who get infected, you observe a significantly increased risk of dying from COVID.

What’s driving this vulnerability? One factor is the pharmacological effects of these drugs. Basically, all of the drugs of abuse that result in addiction, notably opioids, damage the cardiopulmonary system. Some also damage the immune system. And we know that individuals who have any disruption of cardiovascular health, pulmonary health, immune function, or metabolism are at higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19 and having adverse outcomes.

But there’s another factor that’s as important—one that’s very tractable. It is the way in which our society has dealt with substance use disorders: not actually treating them as a disease that requires intervention and support for recovery. The stigmatization of individuals with addiction, the lack of access to treatment, the social isolation, have all created havoc by making these individuals so much more vulnerable to get infected with COVID-19.

They will not go to a doctor. They don’t want to be stigmatized. They need to go out into the streets to get access to the drugs. Many times, they don’t have a choice of what drugs to take because they cannot afford anything except what’s offered to them. So, many, especially those who are minorities, end up homeless or in jails or prison. Even before COVID, we knew that prisons and jails are places where infections can transmit extraordinary rapidly. You could see this was going to result in very negative outcomes for this group of individuals.

Collins: Nora, tell us more about the trends contributing to the current crisis. Maybe three or four years ago, what was going straight up was opioid use, especially heroin. Then, fentanyl started coming up very fast and that has continued. Now, we are seeing more stimulants and mixing of different types of drugs. What is the basis for this?

Volkow: At the beginning of the opiate pandemic, mortality was mainly associated with white Americans, many in rural or semi-suburban areas of the Appalachian states and in New Mexico and Arizona. That has shifted. The highest increase in mortality from opioids, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans. They’ve had very, very high rates of mortality during the COVID pandemic. And when you look at mortality from methamphetamine, it’s chilling to realize that the risk of dying from methamphetamine overdose is 12-fold higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than other groups. This should make us pause to think about what’s driving these terrible racial disparities.

As for drug combinations, many deaths from methamphetamine or cocaine—an estimated 50 percent—are linked to these stimulant drugs being combined with fentanyl or heroin. Dealers are lacing these non-opioid drugs with cheaper, yet potent, opioids to make a larger profit. Someone who’s addicted to a stimulant drug like cocaine or methamphetamine is not tolerant to opioids, which means they are going to be at high risk of overdose if they get a stimulant drug that’s laced with an opioid like fentanyl. That’s been contributing to the sharp rise in mortality from non-opioid drugs.

Collins: I’m glad you raised the issue of health disparities. 2020 will go down as a year in which our nation had to focus on three public health crises at once. The first is the crisis of opioid use disorder and rising mortality from use of other drugs. The second is COVID-19. And the third is the realization, although the problem has been there all along, that health disparities continue to shorten the lives of far too many people.

The latter crisis has little to do with biology, but everything to do with the way in which our society still is afflicted by structural racism. We at NIH are looking at this circumstance, realizing that our own health disparities research agenda needs to be rethought. We have not fully incorporated all the factors that play out in health inequities and racial inequities in our country.

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You were also talking about how stimulants have become more widespread. What about treatments for people with stimulant use disorders?

Volkow: For opioid addiction, we’re lucky because we have very effective medications: methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone. On top of that, we have naloxone, Narcan, that if administered on time, can save the life of a person who has overdosed.

We don’t have any FDA-approved medication for methamphetamine addiction, and we don’t have any overdose reversal for methamphetamine. At the beginning of this year, we funded a large clinical trial aimed at investigating the benefits of the combination of two medications that were already approved as anti-depressants and for the treatment of smoking cessation and alcoholism. It found this combination significantly inhibits the urge to take drugs and therefore helps people stay away from use of methamphetamine. Now, we want to replicate these findings, and to tie that replication study in with guidelines from the FDA on what is needed to approve our new indication for these medications. Why? Because then insurance can cover it, and that will increase the likelihood that people will get treated.

Another exciting possibility is a monoclonal antibody against methamphetamine that’s in Phase 2 clinical trials. If someone comes into the emergency room with an overdose of a combination of opioid and methamphetamine, naloxone often will not work. But this monoclonal antibody with naloxone may offer a greater likelihood of success.
Another thing that’s promising is that investigators have been able to modify monoclonal antibodies so they stay in the bloodstream for a longer time. That means we may someday be able to use this passive immunization approach as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

Collins: That’s good to hear. Speaking of progress, is there any you want to point to within HEAL?

Volkow: There’s a lot of excitement surrounding medication development. We’re interested in developing antidotes that will be more effective in reversing overdose deaths from fentanyl. We’re also interested in providing longer lasting medications for treatment of opioid use disorders, which would improve the likelihood of patients being protected from overdoses.

The Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) is another HEAL landmark project. It involves a network of researchers that is working with judges and with the workers in jail and prison systems responsible for taking care of individuals with substance use disorders. Through this network, we’ve been able to start to harmonize practices. One thing that’s been transformative in the jail and prison system has been the embracing of telehealth. In the past, telehealth was not much of a reality in jails and prisons because of the fear of it could lead to communications that could perhaps be considered dangerous. That’s changed due to COVID-19. Now, telehealth is providing access to treatment for individuals in jail and prison, many of them with substance use disorders.

Also, because of COVID, many nonviolent individuals in jails and prisons were released. This gives us an opportunity to evaluate how best to help such individuals achieve recovery from substance use disorders. Hopefully we can generate data to show that there are much more effective strategies than incarceration for dealing with substance use disorders.

The HEALing Communities Study, involves Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky—four of the states with the highest rates of mortality from overdoses from the inception of the opioid epidemic. By implementing a battery of interventions for which there is evidence of benefit, this ambitious study set out to decrease overdose mortality by 40 percent in two years. Then, came COVID and turned everything upside down. Still, because we consolidated interactions between agencies, we’ve been able to apply support systems more efficiently in those communities in ways that have been very, very reinforcing. Obviously, there’ve been delays in implementation of interventions that require in-person interactions or that involve hospital emergency departments, which have been saturated with COVID patients.

We’ve learned a lot in the process. I may be too optimistic, but I do believe that we can stay on goal.

Collins: Now, I’d like to transition to a few questions from people who subscribe to the HEAL website. Announced at this meeting three years ago, the HEAL Initiative involves research participants and patients and stakeholders—especially people who have lived experience with pain, addiction, or both.

Let’s get to the first question: “What is NIH doing through HEAL to address the stigma that prevents people who need opioid medications for treatment from getting them?”

Volkow: A crucial question. As we look at the issue of stigma, we need to recognize that there are structural issues in how our society is prioritizing the importance of substance use disorders and the investments devoted to them. And we need to recognize that substance use disorder doesn’t exist in isolation; it is frequently comorbid with mental illness.

We need to listen. Some of the issues that we believe are most problematic are not. We need to empower these communities to speak up and help them do so. This is probably one of the most important things that we can do in terms of addressing stigma for addiction.

Collins: Absolutely. The HEAL Initiative has a number of projects that are focusing on stigma and coming up with tools to help reduce this. And here’s our second question: “In small communities, how can we provide more access to medications for opioid use disorder?”

Volkow: One project funded through HEAL was to evaluate the effectiveness of community pharmacies for delivering buprenorphine to individuals with opioid use disorder. The results show that patients receiving buprenorphine through community pharmacies in rural areas had as good outcomes as patients being treated by specialized clinicians on site.
Another change that’s made things easier is that in March 2020, the DEA relaxed its rules on how a physician can prescribe buprenorphine. In the past, you needed to go physically to see a doctor. Now, the DEA allows a patient to be initiated on buprenorphine through telehealth, and that’s opened the possibility of greater access to treatment in rural communities.

My perspective is let’s look at innovative ways of solving problems. Because the technology is changing in so many ways and so rapidly, let’s take advantage of it.

Collins: Totally with you on that. If there’s a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s that we’ve been forced to take stock of the ways we’ve been doing things. We will learn from this pandemic and change the way we approach so many things in health and medicine as a result. Certainly, opioid use disorder ought to be very high on that list. Let’s move on to another question: “What is the HEAL initiative doing to promote prevention of opioid use?”

Volkow: This is where the HEAL initiative is aiming to provide alternative treatments for the management of pain that reduce the risk of addiction.

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Then there’s the issue of prevention in people who start to take opioids because they either want to get high or escape. With the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen increases in anxiety and in depression. Those are factors that can put a teenager or young adult on a trajectory for higher risk of substance use disorders.

So, what is HEAL doing? There is prevention research specifically targeted, for example, at the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. That is the period of greatest vulnerability of uptake of opioids, or drugs of misuse. We’re also targeting minority groups that may be at very, very high risk. We want to be able to understand the factors that make them more vulnerable to tailor prevention interventions more effectively.

Collins: Today, we’ve shared some of the issues that NIH is wrestling with in its efforts to address the crisis of opioid misuse and overdose, as well as other drugs that are now very much part of the challenge. To learn more, go to the HEAL website. You can also send us your thoughts through the HEAL Idea Exchange.

These developments give me hope in the wake of a very difficult year. Clearly, we still have the capacity to work together, we are resilient, and we are determined to put an end to our nation’s opioid crisis.

Volkow: Francis, I want to thank you for your incredible leadership and your support. I hope the COVID pandemic will bring forth a more equitable system, in which all people are given the chance for resilience that maximizes their life, happiness, and productivity. I think science is an extraordinary tool to help us do that.

Links:

Video: The 2021 Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit: Francis Collins with Nora Volkow (NIH)

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

HEAL Idea Exchange (NIH)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)

Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, A 2021 Virtual Experience


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