Physicians puzzled by prolonged comas after COVID-19 patients taken off ventilators

Physicians across the country are reporting a new medical mystery related to COVID-19 care — patients who recover enough to be taken off ventilators often do not regain consciousness until days or weeks after, NPR reports.

Typically, patients removed from ventilators regain consciousness within a day, but among COVID-19 patients, the coma appears to persist.

Though physicians do not know why this prolonged unconsciousness occurs among COVID-19 patients, there are several theories. COVID-19 patients require larger doses of sedatives than other patients and are usually on the ventilator for longer periods. Additionally, many COVID-19 patients have low oxygen levels, which may cause brain damage.

"So there are many potential contributing factors," Brian Edlow, MD, associate director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery in Boston, told NPR. "The degree to which each of those factors is playing a role in any given patient is still something we're trying to understand."

Physicians are joining together to try and learn more about this condition. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center and Weill Medical College in New York City formed a research consortium. The group is sharing data on COVID-19 patients in prolonged comas.

An international research group based at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is also examining these persistent comas. They are aiming to release early research into the effects of COVID-19 on the brain, including prolonged comas, in September, NPR reports.


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