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Why doctors keep monitoring kids who recover from mysterious COVID-linked illness


 

Israel Shippy doesn’t remember much about having COVID-19 – or the unusual autoimmune disease it triggered – other than being groggy and uncomfortable for a bunch of days. He’s a 5-year-old boy and would much rather talk about cartoons or the ideas for inventions that constantly pop into his head.

“Hold your horses, I think I know what I’m gonna make,” he said, holding up a finger in the middle of a conversation. “I’m gonna make something that lights up and attaches to things with glue, so if you don’t have a flashlight, you can just use it!”

In New York, at least 237 kids, including Israel, appear to have Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). And state officials continue to track the syndrome, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to repeated requests for information on how many children nationwide have been diagnosed so far with MIS-C.

A study published June 29 in the New England Journal of Medicine reported on 186 patients in 26 states who had been diagnosed with MIS-C. A researcher writing in the same issue added reports from other countries, finding that about 1,000 children worldwide have been diagnosed with MIS-C.

Tracking the long-term health effects of MIS-C

Israel is friendly and energetic, but he’s also really good at sitting still. During a recent checkup at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, New York, he had no complaints about all the stickers and wires a health aide attached to him for an EKG. And when Marc Foca, MD, an infectious disease specialist, came by to listen to his heart and lungs, and prod his abdomen, Israel barely seemed to notice.

There were still some tests pending, but overall, Dr. Foca said, “Israel looks like a totally healthy 5-year-old.”

“Stay safe!” Israel called out, as Dr. Foca left. It’s his new sign-off, instead of goodbye. His mother, Janelle Moholland, explained Israel came up with it himself. And she’s also hoping that, after a harrowing couple of weeks in early May, Israel himself will “stay safe.”

That’s why they’ve been returning to Montefiore for the periodic checkups, even though Israel seems to have recovered fully from both COVID-19 and MIS-C.

MIS-C is relatively rare, and it apparently responds well to treatment, but it is new enough – and mysterious enough – that doctors here want to make sure the children who recover don’t experience any related health complications in the future.

“We’ve seen these kids get really sick, and get better and recover and go home, yet we don’t know what the long-term outcomes are,” said Nadine Choueiter, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at Montefiore. “So that’s why we will be seeing them.”

When Israel first got sick at the end of April, his illness didn’t exactly look like COVID-19. He had persistent high fevers, with his temperature reaching 104° F – but no problems breathing. He wasn’t eating. He was barely drinking. He wasn’t using the bathroom. He had abdominal pains. His eyes were red.

They went to the ED a couple of times and visited an urgent care center, but the doctors sent them home without testing him for the coronavirus. Ms. Moholland, 29, said she felt powerless.

“There was nothing I could do but make him comfortable,” she said. “I literally had to just trust in a higher power and just hope that He would come through for us. It taught me a lot about patience and faith.”

As Israel grew sicker, and they still had no answers, Ms. Moholland grew frustrated. “I wish his pediatrician and [the ED and urgent care staff] had done what they were supposed to do and given him a test” when Israel first got sick, Ms. Moholland said. “What harm would it have done? He suffered for about 10 or 11 days that could have been avoided.”

In a later interview, she talked with NPR about how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the African American community because of a combination of underlying health conditions and lack of access to good health care. She said she felt she, too, had fallen victim to those disparities.

“It affects me, personally, because I am African American, but you just never know,” she said. “It’s hard. We’re living in uncertain times – very uncertain times.”

Finally, the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore admitted Israel – and the test she’d been trying to get for days confirmed he had the virus.

“I was literally in tears, like begging them not to discharge me because I knew he was not fine,” she recalled.

Israel was in shock, and by the time he got to the hospital, doctors were on the lookout for MIS-C, so they recognized his symptoms – which were distinct from most people with COVID-19.

Doctors gave Israel fluids and intravenous immunoglobulin, a substance obtained from donated human plasma, which is used to treat deficiencies in the immune system.

Immunoglobulin has been effective in children like Israel because MIS-C appears to be caused by an immune overreaction to the initial coronavirus infection, according to Dr. Choueiter.

“The immune system starts attacking the body itself, including the arteries of the heart,” she said.

In some MIS-C cases – though not Israel’s – the attack occurs in the coronary arteries, inflaming and dilating them. That also happens in a different syndrome affecting children, Kawasaki disease. About 5% of Kawasaki patients experience aneurysms – which can fatally rupture blood vessels – after the initial condition subsides.

Dr. Choueiter and colleagues want to make sure MIS-C patients don’t face similar risks. So far, they’re cautiously optimistic.

“We have not seen any new decrease in heart function or any new coronary artery dilations,” she said. “When we check their blood, their inflammatory markers are back to normal. For the parents, the child is back to baseline, and it’s as if this illness is a nightmare that’s long gone.”

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