Echocardiograms may predict which COVID-19 patients are at risk of developing heart issues, Johns Hopkins researchers find

Echocardiograms may be useful in predicting which COVID-19 patients have the highest risk of developing atrial fibrillation, according to recent findings published in the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography

The study involved 80 COVID-19 patients and 34 non-COVID-19 patients who were treated at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the intensive or intermediate care units for respiratory issues between March and June 2020. None of the participants had a history of heart arrhythmia. 

Researchers evaluated patients' echocardiograms using a speckle-tracking strain, a type of analysis that helps show how well the left atrium moves with each heartbeat. Among COVID-19 patients who developed atrial fibrillation or flutter, researchers observed left atrial strain — which measures the movement of the left atrium's walls — was lower compared to COVID-19 patients who did not develop the heart conditions, at 22.3 percent and 30.4 percent, respectively. 

"A lot of patients already get echocardiograms while in the hospital; the addition of a strain analysis requires no extra scanning of the patient," said Erin Goerlich, MD, first study author and cardiology fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "So this is a safe and affordable new data point that can clue us in about who might develop atrial fibrillation." 

Researchers also observed that COVID-19 patients who developed the heart complication had higher levels of troponin and NT-proBNP — heart-related proteins — in blood test samples, compared to other COVID-19 patients, according to the May 30 findings. 

"This tells us that COVID-19 patients with high levels of these biomarkers should be followed more closely and may benefit from an echocardiogram," Dr. Goerlich said. 

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