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Clinically Reported Neurological Symptoms Common In Hospitalized COVID-19 Patients

Jae C. Hong

On today’s program: A new analysis finds that COVID-19 patients with clinically diagnosed neurological symptoms were six times more likely to die in a hospital than those without such symptoms; advocates want the Allegheny County Jail to administer medication-assisted treatment to those with opioid use disorder more regularly; and a study from a Carnegie Mellon University graduate found those living near restaurants in Pittsburgh encountered more polluted air more than those who lived further away.

COVID-19 neurological symptoms vary widely
(0:00 — 6:28)

People who got COVID-19 reported a slew of symptoms. The most common are shortness of breath and fatigue, but some also experienced neurological issues, such as headaches or the loss of taste.

According to a newly published study, those who experienced clinically diagnosed neurological symptoms were more likely to die in the hospital.

“By far the most common symptom we saw is what we call acute encephalopathy, and we use this term to describe people who are either confused, not themselves, delirious, agitated, or even more drowsy,” says Dr. Sherry Chou, the principal investigator for this study and an associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh. “That happened to over 50% of all the hospitalized patients with COVID-19.”

Chou says one of the worst outcomes, though very rare, is an inflammation or infection of the brain, called meningitis encephalitis.

“I think historically what we know about these pandemics is that where our symptoms may be primarily in one system, a lot of times the entire patient can be affected,” says Chou. Although COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, it’s not surprising neurological symptoms are found.

Chou says the next part of her research will be assessing how survivors are doing after recovery.

Advocates want County Jail to help people incarcerated and addicted to opioids with medication assisted treatment
(6:30 — 12:28)

More than 180 health care experts, community members and formerly incarcerated individuals sent a letter on Monday to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald after Fitzgerald’s designee and other members of the Jail Oversight Board last Thursday voted down a plan to expand medication-assisted treatment for inmates addicted to opioids.

“When people go into jail, right now, because they’re not getting those treatments, they’re basically having to detox which is sort of a painful experience for them while they’re there,” says Oliver Morrison, who reported on this issue with Juliette Rihl for PublicSource.

Morrison says some of those who signed the letter to Fitzgerald have direct experience losing loved ones to opioid overdose soon after leaving jail. They told Morrison if their loved ones had medication-assisted treatment while incarcerated, they might have had an easier time transitioning out of jail, continuing treatment, and might still be alive

“Back in 2017, County health officials all said that this is something that should happen, that the jail should be providing substances like Suboxone to people who are in jail, and the delay I think is their major issue,” says Morrison.

Morrison says health experts agree that medication-assisted treatment is the “gold standard” for treating substance use disorder; even federal prisons have adopted it.

Allegheny County Jail has struggled with funding, but Morrison reports the jail has applied for a grant to administer medication-assisted treatment to more inmates.

“One person who I talked to at Prevention Point Pittsburgh said, if the county was taking the opioid epidemic as seriously as it’s taking the COVID-19 epidemic, she doesn’t think there would be these delays that you’re hearing from the Jail Oversight Board,” says Morrison.

Those who live near restaurant emissions are more likely to experience pollution
(12:30 — 18:00)

When environmental officials or advocacy groups release new reports on air quality including particulate matter, often referred to as soot, usually industrial plants and vehicle emissions are pointed to as primary causes.

But what about the smoky exhaust coming from restaurants? How much of a role does that play in poorer air quality?

“Over the course of many, many days to weeks, or in some cases even months of measurements, we find that on average, the particulate matter contribution from vehicle exhaust tends to be similar in quantity as cooking emissions,” says Rishabh Shah, the lead researcher of a 2020 study of urban restaurant emissions and socioeconomic disparities in exposure.

Shah was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University while conducting this study, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Shah’s research measured particulate matter in different Pittsburgh neighborhoods and in Oakland, California and compared the level of pollution with proximity to restaurants, while also looking at socioeconomic status of those who lived in proximity to the restaurants.

The study found people of color were more likely to live near restaurants and be exposed to particulate matter pollution from them.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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