Public health measures used to slow the spread of COVID-19 also helped people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) breathe a little easier, according to a new study that found hospitalizations for the lung disease dropped by 53 per cent during the pandemic.
The research, conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) and published in The American Journal of Medicine, attributed the decreased need for medical attention to a vast reduction in the prevalence of influenza and other seasonal viruses that can trigger COPD.
“Our study shows there’s a silver lining to the behaviour changes beyond protecting against COVID-19,” said Robert M. Reed, senior author of the study and professor of medicine at UMSOM. “If we completely eliminate masks and distancing during cold and flu season, we’ll allow all those viruses that have been effectively suppressed to come raging back. There could be a lot of illness.”
Around two million Canadians are living with COPD, a chronic, inflammatory disease that obstructs the flow of air from the lungs, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The disease, which occurs more commonly in people suffering from other chronic conditions (such as diabetes and hypertension), is primarily caused by smoking tobacco or prolonged secondhand or passive exposure to tobacco smoke. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis — two conditions that generally occur in tandem — are the biggest contributors to COPD. People who suffer from COPD can experience difficulty breathing, wheezing and a persistent cough in addition to an increased risk of other serious conditions, such as heart disease and lung cancer.
Nearly half of all COPD flare-ups are triggered by seasonal respiratory viruses, with tobacco smoke, air pollution and respiratory infections accounting for most of the remaining hospitalizations. In the heart of the pandemic, however, researchers suspected that social distancing and mask mandates meant to keep people safe from COVID would likely provide a breath of fresh air to people with COPD.
To test their theory, researchers compared weekly COPD hospital admissions at the thirteen-hospital University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) in 2018 and 2019 — before the start of the pandemic — with rates observed after strict health measures were introduced last year.
“We assessed a variety of possible causes that could affect COPD admissions including the presence of multiple diseases or medical conditions and the frequency of COPD exacerbations,” said Jennifer Y. So, co-lead author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at UMSOM. “We found a 53 percent drop in COPD admissions throughout UMMS during COVID-19. That is substantial but, equally significant, the drop in weekly COPD admissions was 36 percent lower than the declines seen in other serious medical conditions, including congestive heart failure, diabetes and heart attack.”
With the rate of vaccination increasing and health measures relaxing, researchers worry the same old triggers will take a familiar toll on COPD sufferers once they abandon these precautions.
“Our study did not assess which public health components worked to tame seasonal respiratory viruses, but a simple thing like wearing a mask while riding on public transit or working from home when you’re sick with a cold could go a long way to reduce virus exposure,” Reed said.
Continued adherence to these health measures could go a long way for patients and prevent greater problems down the road. “The COVID-19 pandemic has helped a lot of people around the world become more aware of the role of masking and social distancing to reduce the spread of disease,” So said.
Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca