New Study Suggests COVID-19 Public Health Measures Linked to Decline in COPD Hospital Admissions

A new study found public health measures designed to curb COVID-19 transmissions may have fostered a significant side benefit: reduced COPD hospital admissions.

A new study found hospital admissions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) significantly decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Authors hypothesize the decline is due to a decrease in respiratory virus prevalence related to public health measures taken during the pandemic.

“Our study shows there’s a silver lining to the behavior changes beyond protecting against COVID-19,” said senior author Robert M. Reed, MD, pulmonologist, University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), professor of medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) in a UMMC press release. “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.”

Reed and colleagues aimed to determine whether public health measures taken to reduce COVID-19 transmission (eg, social distancing, mask mandates) were associated with reduced seasonal viral infections—the most commonly identified trigger for COPD exacerbations—and COPD-related hospital admissions.

Researchers performed a retrospective analysis of data from the 13-hospital UMMS to compare weekly hospital admissions for COPD before (April 1, 2018-September 30, 2018) and after (April 1, 2020-September 30, 2020) COVID-19 public health measures were implemented.

There were 4422 COPD admissions during the specified period, demonstrating a season-matched 53% decline in COPD admissions during the pandemic.

“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,” co-lead author Jennifer Y. So, MD, assistant professor of medicine, UMSOM, said in the press release.

Researchers warned that as more individuals become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and many public health measures are relaxed, this full return to normal may again expose patients with COPD to seasonal viral infections.

"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," added Dr Reed.

The study, “Decline in COPD admissions during the COVID-19 pandemic associated with lower burden of community respiratory viral infections,” was published June 12, 2021 in The American Journal of Medicine.