I-TEAM: For some, COVID-19 isn't the killer. An AU doctor says THEIR OWN BODY is.

Published: Apr. 9, 2020 at 3:29 PM EDT
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Thursday, April 9, 2020

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Some coronavirus patients crash -- and crash hard -- just when they appear to be on the mend. It could be the reason COVID-19 is killing some young people with no underlying health conditions.

The good news is that Augusta University Health infectious disease expert Dr. Jose Vazquez says this only happens in about 5% of patients.

The bad news? It’s catching those patients off guard because it hits seemingly out of nowhere and when the patient has already started to recover.

You could call the coronavirus a perfect storm in how it’s been able to sweep the globe.

Doctors at AU are about to study another storm, thought. It's one that's been silently brewing in some coronavirus patients.

“We don’t know what triggers it,” Dr. Jose Vazquez said. “We don’t know if it’s a type of individual.”

Doctors do know this -- the cytokine storm -- as it’s called -- isn’t the work of the coronavirus.

It’s the patient’s own body betraying them.

“And those are the patients that end up in the hospital,” Dr. Vazquez said. “Those are the patients that end up in the ICU, and those are the ones that end up on mechanical ventilation.”

A lot of times, it’s too late. That’s because the immune system has already done too much damage.

Yes, the immune system.

When a virus attacks, your immune system releases an army of cytokines to fight.

When they defeat the enemy, the war is over.

In a cytokine storm, your soldiers aren’t getting the memo, so you keep sending more into battle.

Eventually, they attack you.

“So the lungs get flooded with fluid,” Vazquez said. You, meanwhile, are unaware of this treason because it happens days after you start to feel better.

“As a matter of fact, that cytokine storm begins at about the second week,” Dr. Vazquez said.

Cytokine storms can happen in people of any age, but doctors think this might explain why young people who are otherwise healthy have become coronavirus casualties.

They’re also starting to use a drug called tocilizumab -- similar to

-- that’s made headlines recently.

“It’s used in patients that have collagen vascular disease, and it's supposed to block that cytokine cascade,” Dr. Vazquez said. “We do use it here, but only in very severe patients.”

There hasn't been a lot of research on it yet, but next week, AU plans to start looking at inflammatory markers that might be able to forecast this storm.

Hopefully, it will help their patients get ahead of it.

Dr. Vazquez says they’ll be using blood tests to study these cytokines. He also says not every lab has the capability of doing that kind of test, but AU does.

That’s just one more way Augusta University could be helping in this global fight.

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