On Monday, I shared with you how John’s obsessive quest for COVID-19 news was driving me crazy until I understood why. I am now more receptive to John’s over-sharing, and he is more sensitive to my aversion to pandemic related stories. He is cautious with what he shares with me, only showing me medical developments related to COVID-19. This morning he shared with me a story that stopped me in my tracks. As a Registered Nurse, I think this could be a game-changer in the battle against COVID-19.
The story appeared in the New York times Monday, written by an acclaimed ER doctor with extensive respiratory system experience. The article is a tad verbose, so I will truncate it here for you. In the article, the doctor recounts how he makes a stunning discovery while working in the ER. He discovers that patients coming into the ER for non-COVID-19 related issues like stabbings were testing positive for COVID pneumonia. Pneumonia refers to a lung infection that causes the lung’s air sacs to fill with fluid. So, in this case, COVID-19 has brought on this infection of the lungs. Most of us already knew that the virus affects our breathing, so this is not groundbreaking…yet.
What the doctor observed is that most of these people that had come into the ER for non-COVID-19 issues, and then tested positive for COVID pneumonia, did not have any symptoms at all. No tell-tale COVID-19, nor pneumonia symptoms. Usually, pneumonia causes shortness of breath, coughing, fever, and fatigue. This is in part why these symptoms are associated with COVID-19 – because the virus causes…you got it, pneumonia! Glad you are following along. Well, we also know that COVID-19 can go undetected for days, even weeks, so again nothing breathtaking (no pun intended) yet.
Here is where things start to get interesting. One of the “vitals” your healthcare provider measures when you are admitted to hospital, especially if a respiratory illness is suspected, is your oxygen saturation (O2 Sat). To put it simply, O2 Sat is the amount of oxygen in your blood. The ideal range is 95-100, written as a percentage. When the asymptomatic (no symptoms) patients’ O2 Sat was measured, they all scored poorly, some as low as 50! We call this “silent hypoxia” and it is bad. Hypoxia means low oxygen levels (low 02 Sat). Usually, with a score of 50, we would have you hooked up to some breathing assistance device fighting for your life. I can get into how the body copes with such low oxygen levels, but I shall not for the sake of brevity. In this case, the body did such a good job; these unfortunate victims didn’t know they were ill. The ability to be on stealth mode like this is what makes COVID-19 such an efficient killer. Some people who contract the virus will develop COVID pneumonia and not know they have it until its too late. Most people will only go to the hospital when they experience shortness of breath; by then, the disease has progressed irreversibly. Now for some good news.
So, we are all aware that one of the reasons we are doing so poorly in the fight against COVID-19 is the lack of testing kits. Early detection would be a game-changer. We would be able to identify carriers before they infect others and treat them early, which increases their chances of survival. What if I told you there was a way to check 02 Sat at home with an over-the-counter device that you can buy at most drug stores? Yes, a way to check for hypoxia, an early sign of COVID pneumonia without ever having to leave your house. The device is called a Pulse Oximeter. You can get a decent one for less than $100. If you don’t have a thermometer, get one while you are at it, and you can rest a little easier knowing that you have some handy early detection tools. Help save lives, share, and spread the word!