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Hydroxychloroquine is currently first-line, and tocilizumab second-line, for people hospitalized with polymerase chain reaction–confirmed COVID-19 in the Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health System, which operates hospitals across Connecticut, many of them hard hit by the pandemic.
Patients enter the treatment algorithm if they have an oxygen saturation at or below 93% on room air or chronic supplementation, or by being acutely ill with fever, respiratory signs, or opacities on chest x-ray, plus risk factors for severe illness such as age over 60 years, chronic heart or lung disease, immunosuppression, diabetes, hypertension, or obesity, which makes it harder to ventilate.
Physicians at Yale have seen both presentations — oxygen desaturation and frank illness — and “wanted to make sure we weren’t missing anyone,” said Nihar Desai, MD, a Yale cardiologist who is helping to coordinate the health system’s response to COVID-19.
In either case, the initial treatment is the same at Yale hospitals: hydroxychloroquine for 5 days, with tocilizumab (Actemra) considered when not contraindicated and oxygen requirements reach or pass 3 L, or 2 L with C-reactive protein levels above 70 mg/L.
Patients are put on prophylactic enoxaparin to thin the blood unless contraindicated; inflammatory, cardiac, kidney, and other markers are checked every 12 or 24 hours; and ECGs are taken daily if telemetry isn’t used. Chest x-rays are repeated if clinical signs worsen, and transthoracic echocardiograms are ordered for suspected heart problems.
ICUs are notified early if the clinical situation worsens because patients “can deteriorate very quickly; at the first sign of trouble, people are really aggressive,” said Dr. Desai, also the associate chief of clinical operations in the Section of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Yale University, New Haven.
The Haze of Battle
Yale has updated its algorithm several times since the virus first hit Connecticut weeks ago. A team including pulmonologists, critical care physicians, pharmacologists, infectious disease experts, and cardiologists, including Dr. Desai, are constantly monitoring the situation and making changes as new information comes in.
Much of what’s being done at Yale and elsewhere is empiric because there are simply not much data to go on. “We are trying to do the best we can” in “the haze of battle. People really came together quickly to develop this. One hopes we never have to go through anything like this again,” he said.
Hydroxychloroquine is first-line at Yale because in-vitro data show potent inhibition of the virus and possible clinical benefit, which is about as good as evidence gets at the moment. Also, “it’s cheap, it’s been used for decades, and people are relatively comfortable with it,” Dr. Desai said.
Tocilizumab, an interleukin-6 (IL-6) receptor antagonist, is second-line because it might counter the cytokine storm thought to be at least partly responsible for severe complications, and retrospective data suggest possible benefit. The antiviral remdesivir and IL-6 blocker sarulimab (Kevzara) are also potential candidates, available through clinical trials.
Dr. Desai wanted to share the algorithm with other providers because, he noted, “there are a lot of places that may not have all the resources we have.”
His home institution, Yale New Haven Hospital, is almost half full with COVID-19 patients, at more than 400.
A Moving Target
Yale’s approach is similar in confirmed COVID-19 cases already in respiratory failure, including those on mechanical ventilation and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation: hydroxychloroquine and possibly tocilizumab, but also methylprednisolone if clinical status worsens or inflammatory markers go up. The steroid is for additional help battling the cytokine storm, Dr. Desai said.
The degree of anticoagulation in the ICU is based on d-dimer levels or suspicion or confirmation of venous thromboembolism. Telemetry is monitored closely for QTc prolongation, and point of care ultrasound is considered to check left ventricular function in the setting of markedly increased cardiac troponin levels, ECG abnormalities, or hemodynamic instability.
Previous versions of Yale’s algorithm included HIV protease inhibitors, but they were pulled after a recent trial found no benefit. Frequency of monitoring was also reduced from every 8 hours because it didn’t improve decision making and put staff collecting specimens at risk (N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar 18. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa2001282).
Anticoagulation was added to newer versions after it became clear that COVID-19 is prothrombotic. “We are still seeing thrombotic events that might warrant further intensification,” Dr. Desai said.
Newer algorithms also have Yale watching QTc intervals more closely. It’s unclear if the prolongation risk is caused by the infection or hydroxychloroquine.
On April 24, the Food and Drug Administration reiterated its concern about the arrhythmia risk with hydroxychloroquine and emphasized that it should only be used for COVID-19 patients when they are hospitalized and it is not feasible for them to participate in a clinical trial.
To help keep patients safe, ECGs from confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases are now first in line to be reviewed by cardiologists across Yale hospitals to pick up prolongations and notify providers as soon as possible. Hydroxychloroquine is held if there are no other explanations.
Cardiologists are on the frontline at Yale and elsewhere, Dr. Desai said, because heart complications like myocarditis and arrhythmias emerged early as common problems in hospitalized patients.
This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.