SARS-CoV-2 and Stroke in a New York Healthcare System
Background and Purpose:
With the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) during the current worldwide pandemic, there is mounting evidence that patients affected by the illness may develop clinically significant coagulopathy with thromboembolic complications including ischemic stroke. However, there is limited data on the clinical characteristics, stroke mechanism, and outcomes of patients who have a stroke and COVID-19.
We conducted a retrospective cohort study of consecutive patients with ischemic stroke who were hospitalized between March 15, 2020, and April 19, 2020, within a major health system in New York, the current global epicenter of the pandemic. We compared the clinical characteristics of stroke patients with a concurrent diagnosis of COVID-19 to stroke patients without COVID-19 (contemporary controls). In addition, we compared patients to a historical cohort of patients with ischemic stroke discharged from our hospital system between March 15, 2019, and April 15, 2019 (historical controls).
During the study period in 2020, out of 3556 hospitalized patients with diagnosis of COVID-19 infection, 32 patients (0.9%) had imaging proven ischemic stroke. Cryptogenic stroke was more common in patients with COVID-19 (65.6%) as compared to contemporary controls (30.4%, P=0.003) and historical controls (25.0%, P<0.001). When compared with contemporary controls, COVID-19 positive patients had higher admission National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale score and higher peak D-dimer levels. When compared with historical controls, COVID-19 positive patients were more likely to be younger men with elevated troponin, higher admission National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale score, and higher erythrocyte sedimentation rate. Patients with COVID-19 and stroke had significantly higher mortality than historical and contemporary controls.
We observed a low rate of imaging-confirmed ischemic stroke in hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Most strokes were cryptogenic, possibly related to an acquired hypercoagulability, and mortality was increased. Studies are needed to determine the utility of therapeutic anticoagulation for stroke and other thrombotic event prevention in patients with COVID-19.
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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the illness caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome CoV-2 coronavirus, has an unclear impact on the cerebrovascular system. With over 200 000 confirmed cases as of April 15, 2020, New York State currently accounts for ≈10% of all confirmed cases worldwide. Given early reports of an association between COVID-19 and cerebrovascular disease, there is a critical, unmet need to define associations and outcomes of patients with cerebrovascular disease and COVID-19.
Understanding factors associated with stroke in patients with COVID-19 will aid in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of COVID-19 associated cerebrovascular disease as well as potentially identify underlying mechanisms. In this study, we aim to characterize ischemic stroke in patients with COVID-19 from a large healthcare system with a diverse patient population in the New York metropolitan area and compare these characteristics to those of contemporary and historical ischemic stroke controls without COVID-19.
We obtained institutional review board approval from NYU Langone Health to perform the study, and informed consent was waived by the institutional review board. Data from the study are available for sharing upon reasonable request to the corresponding author. This is a retrospective observational study including patients admitted to one of 3 comprehensive stroke centers in the New York metropolitan area (NYU Langone Manhattan, NYU Langone Brooklyn in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and NYU Langone Winthrop in Mineola, Long Island) with acute ischemic stroke hospitalized between March 15, 2020, and April 19, 2020. All consecutive patients with radiological confirmation of acute ischemic stroke during this time frame were included. In addition, we included consecutive patients from 2 of our facilities (NYU Langone Brooklyn and NYU Langone Manhattan) with a discharge diagnosis of ischemic stroke between March 15, 2019, and April 15, 2019, as a historical comparator group (historical control).
Stroke Assessment and Classification
In general, patients underwent a standard diagnostic evaluation, including brain imaging, intracranial and extracranial vascular imaging, and cardiac evaluation, including ECG, in-house continuous cardiac telemetry for at least 24 hours, and transthoracic echocardiography per institutional protocol. Stroke subtype was classified based on the Trial of ORG 10172 in Acute Stroke Treatment classification.1 Large artery atherosclerosis was defined as 50% or more narrowing in an artery supplying the ischemic infarct territory, small vessel disease was defined as a small (≤1.5 cm on head computed tomography or ≤2 cm on diffusion-weighted imaging sequence) subcortical infarct in patients with risk factors for small vessel disease, cardioembolic was defined as the presence of a major cardioembolic source, such as atrial fibrillation, endocarditis, or ejection fraction ≤30%, and other was defined as an alternative mechanism such as dissection or known hypercoagulability, excluding de novo hypercoagulability in the setting of a COVID-19. Cryptogenic was defined as cases not meeting criteria for any of the above stroke subtypes, including those with incomplete workup or with multiple competing high-risk mechanisms.1 In addition, we defined embolic stroke of undetermined source according to the criteria proposed by the Cryptogenic Stroke/Embolic Stroke of Undetermined Source International Working Group.2 Finally, we also classified strokes based on the ASCOD criteria (atheroclerosis, small-vessel disease, cardiac pathology, other cause, and dissection).3
The following variables were abstracted from the medical records of patients:
Demographic variables: age, sex, and race/ethnicity.
Clinical variables: History of hypertension, history of diabetes mellitus, history of hyperlipidemia, history of coronary artery disease, history of congestive heart failure, history of atrial fibrillation, history of prior stroke or transient ischemic attack; active smoking; admission National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) score; date of stroke determined as date of stroke symptom onset and if not available, it was based on the date the stroke likely occur based on the abstractors clinical judgment.
Laboratory variables: cardiac troponin level (closest to the time of the stroke), C-reactive protein (closest to the time of the stroke), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (closest to the time of the stroke), and D-dimer level (highest level and closest to the time of the stroke).
Imaging variables: infarct pattern (multiple vascular territories versus single vascular territory) and proximal large artery occlusion (defined as occlusion of the intracranial internal carotid artery, M1, and M2 segments of the middle cerebral artery, basilar artery, or P1 segment of the posterior cerebral artery).
In-hospital treatments: alteplase, mechanical thrombectomy, anticoagulation therapy, mechanical ventilation, hydroxychloroquine, and other novel investigational treatments.
Discharge outcomes: discharge disposition (home, acute rehab, nursing facility, or death/hospice), and in-hospital mortality.
COVID-19 Screening and Diagnosis
Screening for COVID-19 was performed at first provider contact and included evaluation for recent COVID-19 exposure, history of fever or respiratory symptoms, or chest radiographic findings. In general, patients with a negative screen do not undergo COVID-19 testing. A positive screen would trigger testing, and this is generally the case when screening could not be completed. Assays for COVID-19 were performed in accordance with standards established by the World Health Organization. A reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction study was performed in each center’s laboratory using a sample obtained via a nasopharyngeal swab. The primary variable of interest was COVID-19 status (positive versus negative).
No sample-size calculations were performed. All patients (cases and control groups) were divided into 3 groups: group 1 included patients with ischemic stroke and COVID-19 (cases), group 2 included contemporary patients with ischemic stroke without COVID-19 (contemporary controls), and group 3 included historical patients with ischemic stroke without COVID-19 over the same time frame (historical controls). We compared baseline characteristics and stroke subtypes between the groups, using the Fischer exact test for categorical variables and nonparametric test for continuous variables. We then performed binary logistic regression analyses to determine baseline characteristics and laboratory values associated with stroke in the setting of COVID-19 compared with historical and contemporary controls. In these models, we included variables with a 2-sided P<0.05 on univariate models. In addition, we performed binary logistic regression analyses to determine the association between COVID-19 related stroke and in-hospital mortality adjusting for age and admission NIHSS score. Analysis was performed using SPSS version 25.0 (Chicago, IL), and a 2-sided P<0.05 was considered significant.
Characteristics of Patients With COVID-19 and Stroke
Out of 3556 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 infection during the study period, we identified a total of 32 patients (0.9%) who had radiologically proven ischemic stroke. Among contemporary controls, 70% (32/46) underwent the COVID-19 test and the rest screened negative and were not tested.
Of the 32 patients (Table 1), stroke was the reason for admission in 43.8%, and COVID-19 symptoms were the reason for admission in 56.2%, with index stroke occurring during the hospital stay. The number of strokes in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in our health care system, all COVID-19 new hospitalizations in our health care system, and all COVID-19 new hospitalizations in New York City are shown in Figure 1. Among the 32 patients with COVID-19 and stroke, the median (interquartile range [IQR]) age was 62.5 (52.0–69.25) years and 71.9% (23/32) were men; 70.0% (21/30) were white, 20.0% (6/30) were black, 10.0% (3/30) were Asian, 13.3% (4/30) were Hispanic; 65.6% (21/32) were of cryptogenic subtype and 34.4% (11/32) met the criteria for embolic stroke of undetermined source. The median (IQR) time from first COVID-19 symptoms to identification of stroke was 10 (5–16.5) days. The most prominent clinical features were cough (84.4%), fever (71.9%), and hypoxia (78.1%). At last follow-up, 81.3% (26/32) met the criteria for severe disease; 75.0% (24/32) were dead or critically ill. The median (IQR) D-dimer level closest to the time of the stroke was 3913 ng/mL (2549–10 000), and the median (IQR) C-reactive protein level was 101.1 mg/L (38.8–214.3). Figure 2 shows brain and chest imaging of 2 patients with COVID-19 and cryptogenic stroke subtype. Treatments before stroke symptoms/diagnosis included hydroxychloroquine (40.6%, n=13), lopinavir-ritonavir (3.1%, n=1), and tocilizumab (6.3%, n=2).
|Demographics Risk Factors||COVID-19 Symptoms and Severity||Days From COVID-19 Symptoms to Stroke and Any COVID-19 Treatment Before Stroke||Laboratory Values Closest to Time of Stroke||Stroke Subtype*||Treatment||Outcome|
|Patient 1||50s black with HTN||Cough||6 d||CRP 11||Cryptogenic||Alteplase||Discharged to rehabilitation|
|D-dimer >10 000||A2 SO C9 O1 D0||Thrombectomy|
|Patient 2||60s white with HTN, DM2, HLPD, AF, CHF, and CAD||Cough, fever, hypoxia||1 d||CRP 31.6||Large artery atherosclerosis (basilar stenosis)||Aspirin, clopidogrel||Death|
|IL-6 level 5||A1 S3 C1 O0 D0|
|Patient 3||70s white with HTN, DM2, AF, HLPD, and prior stroke||Fever, cough, hypoxia||5 d||CRP 72||Cardioembolic||Alteplase||Death|
|D-dimer 3247||A3 S0 C1 O2 D0||Thrombectomy|
|IL-6 level 14|
|Patient 4||70s white with HTN and HLPD||Cough, hypoxia||8 d||CRP 111||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|D-dimer >10 000||A9 S0 C1 O1 D9|
|Patient 5||70s Asian with HTN||Fever, cough, hypoxia||5 d||CRP 63.8||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|D-dimer >10 000||A9 S0 C9 O1 D9|
|Patient 6||50s white with HTN, DM2, and HLPD||No symptoms||No symptoms prior||NA||Large artery atherosclerosis (M1 segment stenosis)||Aspirin||Discharged home|
|A1 S3 C9 O0 D0||Clopidogrel|
|Patient 7||40s black with HTN, DM2, and HLPD||Hypoxia||No symptoms prior||CRP 16.7||Cardioembolic (EF 26%)||Thrombectomy||Discharged to rehabilitation|
|D-dimer 769||A0 S0 C1 O0 D0||Aspirin|
|Patient 8||40s Asian without known medical history||Fever, cough, hypoxia||14 d||CRP 170||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer >10 000||A9 S0 C0 O2 D9|
|Patient 9||60s white with HTN and AF||No symptoms||1 d||CRP 6.9||Cardioembolic||Anticoagulation||Home|
|A0 S3 C1 O2 D0|
|Patient 10||50s white with HTN, DM2, and HLPD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||5 d||CRP 101.1||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|D-dimer 319||A9 S0 C1 O2 D9|
|Patient 11||60s white with HLPD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||18 d||CRP 214.3||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|D-dimer 4841||A9 S3 C3 O1 D9|
|Patient 12||70s white with HTN and AF||Cough, hypoxia||10 d||CRP 94.4||Cardioembolic new onset AF after stroke||Alteplase Thrombectomy Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer >10 000|
|IL-6 870||A2 S0 C1 O1 D0|
|Patient 13||60s white with HTN and HLPD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||15 d||CRP 154.4||Cryptogenic||Alteplase Thrombectomy Anticoagulation||Death|
|D-dimer 4102||A3 S0 C0 O1 D0|
|Patient 14||40s black with no past medical history||Cough||No symptoms prior||CRP 141.8||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|D-dimer >10 000||A1 S3 C0 O1 D0|
|Patient 15||40s white with DM2 and HLPD||Hypoxia||3 d||CRP 38.8||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Discharged to rehabilitation|
|D-dimer >10 000||A0 S0 C0 O1 D0|
|Patient 16||70s white with HTN, HLPD, and AF||Fever, cough, hypoxia||24 d||CRP 76||Cardioembolic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 3723||A9 S3 C1 O1 D9|
|Patient 17||40s white with HTN, HLPD, DM2, and CAD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||No symptoms prior||CRP 17||Cardioembolic||Aspirin||Death|
|Troponin 4.5||A3 S3 C1 O2 D0|
|Patient 18||60s white with HTN, DM2, HLPD, CAD, and AF||Fever, cough||Unknown||CRP 108||Cardioembolic||Anticoagulation||Discharged to rehabilitation|
|D-dimer 226||A3 S3 C1 O2 D9|
|Patient 19||70s white with HTN and HLPD||Fever, cough||6 d||CRP 60.3||Cryptogenic||Aspirin||Discharged to rehabilitation|
|D-dimer 662||A3 S3 C0 O2 D9|
|Patient 20||60s black with DM2 and HLPD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||5 d||CRP 70||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 4786||A3 S3 C9 O1 D9|
|Patient 21||60s white with HTN, HLPD, and CAD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||27 d||CRP 248||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 5870||A9 S3 C3 O1 D9|
|Patient 22||60s with no known medical history||Fever, cough, hypoxia||16 d||CRP 323.73||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 3081||A0 S0 C3 O2 D0|
|Patient 23||40s black with HTN||No COVID-19 symptoms||No symptoms prior||CRP 11.9||Cryptogenic||Thrombectomy||Critically ill|
|D-dimer 2735||A0 S0 C0 O1 D0||Anticoagulation|
|Patient 24||70s white with DM2||Fever, cough, hypoxia||27 d||CRP 142.1||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Death|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 2814||A0 S0 C3 O1 D0|
|Patient 25||50s white without known medical history||Fever, cough, hypoxia||7 d||CRP 9.9||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 3248||A9 S0 C2 O1 D9|
|Patient 26||60s Asian with HLPD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||10 d||CRP 297||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer >10 000||A3 S3 C2 O1 D0|
|Patient 27||60s white without known medical history||Fever, cough, hypoxia||17 d||CRP 314.5||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 2703||A0 S3 C3 O1 D0|
|Patient 28||70s white with DM2 and CAD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||3 d||CRP 366.5||Watershed from hypotension||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer >10 000|
|Troponin 0.52||A3 S3 C3 O1 D0|
|Patient 29||40s black with HTN, HLPD, and CHF||Fever, cough, hypoxia||15 d||CRP 235||Watershed from hypotension||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|Troponin 1.42||A3 S3 C1 O1 D0|
|Patient 30||50s white with no known medical history||Fever, cough, hypoxia||22 d||CRP 210.78||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Discharged to rehabilitation|
|D-dimer 6933||A0 S0 C0 O1 D0|
|Patient 31||50s with no known medical history||Fever, cough, hypoxia||Unknown||CRP 284.91||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|D-dimer >10 000||A9 S0 C0 O1 D9|
|Patient 32||60s white with HLPD||Fever, cough, hypoxia||15 d||CRP 83.03||Cryptogenic||Anticoagulation||Critically ill|
|Hydroxychloroquine||D-dimer 3058||A9 S0 C9 O1 D9|
When compared with contemporary stroke controls, patients with COVID-19 and stroke were younger (median [IQR] in years: 63  versus 70 , P=0.001), had higher admission NIHSS score (median [IQR] NIHSS score: 19  versus 8 , P=0.007), had higher peak D-dimer level (median [IQR] in ng/mL: >10 000  versus 526 , P=0.023, were more likely to be treated with anticoagulation (78.1% versus 23.9%, P<0.001), more likely to have a cryptogenic stroke subtype (65.6% versus 30.4%, P=0.003), and higher inpatient mortality (63.6% versus 9.3%, P<0.001; Table 2).
|COVID-19 Positive (A) (n=32)||COVID-19 Negative (B)+ (n=46)||Historical Controls (C) (n=80)||P Value (A vs B)||P Value (A vs C)||P Value (B vs C)|
|Age, median (IQR)||63 (17)||70 (18)||68.5 (23)||0.001||0.078||0.881|
|Sex (% men)||71.9% (23)||52.2% (24)||45.0% (36)||0.102||0.012||0.464|
|Hypertension (%)||56.3% (18)||76.1% (35)||80.0% (64)||0.086||0.017||0.655|
|Diabetes mellitus (%)||34.4% (11)||28.3% (13)||30.0% (24)||0.623||0.658||1.000|
|Hyperlipidemia (%)||56.3% (18)||50.0% (23)||42.5% (34)||0.649||0.213||0.460|
|Congestive heart failure (%)||6.3% (2)||10.9% (5)||5.0% (4)||0.694||1.000||0.285|
|Coronary artery disease (%)||15.6% (5)||26.1% (12)||20.0% (16)||0.404||0.790||0.506|
|Atrial fibrillation (%)||18.8% (6)||21.7% (10)||25.0% (20)||0.784||0.622||0.829|
|History of stroke or TIA (%)||3.1% (1)||13.0% (6)||25.0% (20)||0.230||0.007||0.169|
|Active smoking (%)||0% (0)||4.3% (2)||12.8% (10/78)||0.513||0.059||0.207|
|NIHSS score, median (IQR)||19 (23)||8 (12)||3 (12)||0.007||0.001||0.071|
|D-dimer level (ng/mL) closest to stroke diagnosis, median (IQR)||3913 (7451)||526 (2752)||NA||0.023||NA||NA|
|Highest D-dimer (ng/mL) level during hospitalization, median (IQR)||>10,000 (7427)||526 (2752)||NA||0.023||NA||NA|
|CRP level, median (IQR), ng/mL||101.1 (175.5)||37.2 (130.7)||NA||0.208||NA||NA|
|ESR level, median (IQR)||79 (53)||40 (86)||41 (52)||0.172||0.001||0.860|
|Troponin level ≥0.1 mg/dL||45.2% (14/31)||23.1% (9/39)||8.1% (6/74)||0.073||<0.001||0.039|
|Large vessel occlusion (%)||45.5% (10/22)||27.9% (12/43)||20.3% (16/79)||0.318||0.026||0.372|
|Alteplase (%)||12.5% (4)||10.9% (5)||7.5% (6)||1.000||0.468||0.528|
|Thrombectomy (%)||18.8% (6)||17.4% (8)||13.8% (11)||1.000||0.563||0.612|
|Anticoagulation (%)||78.1% (25)||23.9% (11)||25.0% (20)||<0.001||<0.001||1.000|
|Cardioembolic||21.9% (7)||21.7% (10)||35.0% (28)|
|Large vessel disease||6.3% (2)||17.4% (8)||21.3% (17)|
|Small vessel disease||0% (0)||13.0% (6)||10.0% (8)|
|Cryptogenic||65.6% (21)||30.4% (14)||25.0% (20)|
|Other defined mechanisms||6.3% (2)||17.4% (8)||8.8% (7)|
|Cryptogenic stroke (vs other mechanism) (%)||65.6% (21)||30.4% (14)||25.0% (20)||0.003||<0.001||0.537|
|Embolic stroke of undetermined source (vs other mechanism)* (%)||50.0% (11/22)||25.0% (11/44)||24.1% (19/79)||0.055||0.033||1.000|
|In-hospital death (%)||63.6% (14/22)||9.3% (4/43)||6.3% (5)||<0.001||<0.001||0.718|
When compared with historical stroke controls, patients with COVID-19 and stroke were more likely to be men (71.9% versus 45.0%, P=0.012), had higher admission NIHSS score (median [IQR] NIHSS score: 19  versus 3 , P=0.001), had higher erythrocyte sedimentation rate level (median [IQR]: 79  versus 41 , P=0.001), were more likely to have positive troponin levels (45.2% versus 8.1%, P<0.001), were more likely to have proximal large vessel occlusion (45.5% versus 20.3%, P=0.026), were more likely to be treated with anticoagulation (78.1% versus 25.0%, P<0.001), were more likely to have a cryptogenic stroke subtype (65.6% versus 25.0%, P<0.001), and higher inpatient mortality (63.6% versus 6.3%, P<0.001; Table 2). Conversely, patients with COVID-19 and stroke were less likely to have hypertension (56.3% versus 80.0%, P=0.017) and history of prior stroke or transient ischemic attack (3.1% versus 25.0%, P=0.007).
Among patients with ischemic stroke and COVID-19, cryptogenic stroke subtype was associated with a trend towards higher d-dimer median (IQR) level in ng/mL at the time of the stroke (4841  versus 2087 , P=0.109) but not with a significantly higher median (IQR) C-reactive protein level mg/L (141.8 [169.1] versus 74 [122.8], P=0.303).
Binary Logistic Regression Analyses
In binary logistic regression models (Table 3), when compared with contemporary controls, patients with COVID-19 had non-significantly higher admission NIHSS score (odds ratio [OR] per point increase 1.13 [95% CI, 0.98–1.30], P=0.085) and higher peak d-dimer level (OR per 100 ng/mL increase 1.02 [95% CI, 1.00–1.05], P=0.093). In addition, when adjusting for age and NIHSS score, patients with COVID-19 and stroke had a significantly higher in-hospital mortality than contemporary controls (adjusted OR 64.87 [95% CI, 4.44–987.28], P=0.002).
|Adjusted Odds Ratio (95% CI)||P Value|
|Model 1 (n=36 patients included)|
|Age per year increase||0.98 (0.91–1.04)||0.371|
|NIHSS score per unit increase||1.13 (0.98–1.30)||0.085|
|Highest D-dimer per 100 unit increase||1.02 (1.00–1.05)||0.093|
|Model 2* (n=53 patients included)|
|Age per year increase||0.89 (0.78–1.01)||0.062|
|Male sex||13.48 (0.91–200.27)||0.059|
|NIHSS per unit increase||1.23 (1.05–1.44)||0.010|
|History of hypertension||0.57 (0.05–6.87)||0.656|
|Positive troponin||17.25 (0.58–510.35)||0.099|
|ESR per unit increase||1.03 (1.00–1.06)||0.041|
In binary logistic regression models (Table 3), when compared with historical controls, COVID-19 positive patients were non-significantly more likely to be younger (OR per year increase 0.89 [95% CI, 0.78–1.01], P=0.062), be men (OR 13.48 [95% CI, 0.91–200.27], P=0.059), have elevated troponin levels (OR 17.25 [95% CI, 0.58–510.35], P=0.099), a significantly higher admission NIHSS score (OR per point increase 1.23 [95% CI, 1.05–1.44], P=0.010), and a significantly higher erythrocyte sedimentation rate level (OR per 1 unit increase 1.03 [95% CI, 1.00–1.06], P=0.041). In addition, when adjusting for age and NIHSS score, patients with COVID-19 and stroke had a significantly higher in-hospital mortality than historical controls (adjusted OR 40.27 [95% CI, 5.44–298.01], P<0.001).
In this multi-ethnic study, we report key demographic and clinical characteristics of patients who develop ischemic stroke associated with acute severe acute respiratory syndrome CoV-2 coronavirus infection. The observed rate of imaging-confirmed acute ischemic stroke in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 of 0.9% was lower compared with prior reports from Chinese COVID-19 studies. Reasons for difference are unknown but could possibly be related to differences in the patient population studied in our patient population as compared to the other studies and other studies including hemorrhagic stroke and venous sinus thrombosis patients. In addition, the rate of ischemic stroke in our study may be an underestimate as the detection of ischemic stroke symptoms is challenging in those critically ill with COVID-19 infection who are intubated and sedated.
When classified according to the Trial of ORG 10172 in Acute Stroke Treatment criteria,1 a majority (65.6%) of these patients were classified as cryptogenic stroke and 34.4% met embolic stroke of undetermined source criteria. In contrast, 30.4% of the contemporary COVID negative control group and 25.0% of the historical control group were classified as cryptogenic stroke, in keeping with other modern stroke cohorts.4 Patients with COVID-19 and stroke were very ill as a group; 68.8% of patients required mechanical ventilation and 81.3% had severe illness graded according to the American Thoracic Society/Infectious Diseases Society of America Criteria for pneumonia severity.5 Our findings are congruent with other studies which reported an increased prevalence of neurological disorders in those with more severe infection.6
Our study also shows that the number of COVID-19 positive ischemic strokes has increased initially but seems to have peaked and then decreased. This finding may be related to the overall reduction in COVID-19 admissions, likely due to social distancing and stay at home order (Figure 1). In addition, a therapeutic anticoagulation protocol was instated in our institution the week of April sixth, 2020, which suggests the use of therapeutic anticoagulation in patients with high D-dimer levels. This may have led to a lower rate to thrombotic complications including ischemic stroke in hospitalized COVID-19 positive patients.
Furthermore, the number of patients with stroke hospitalized in the study period were less than historical controls. This witnessed low volume of acute emergencies during the COVID-19 pandemic has been observed in other institutions as well.7 The reasons for this are unclear but possibly that patients with stroke and mild symptoms are staying at home and not presenting to the emergency department for stroke treatment.
Mechanisms of Associations
There are multiple, not mutually exclusive, possible mechanisms associating COVID-19 with ischemic stroke. In patients with COVID-19 requiring invasive respiratory support, the median duration of mechanical ventilation has been reported 11 days,8 which renders them vulnerable to complications associated with critical illness and a prolonged intensive care unit stay including the risk for (1) hypotension and inadequate cerebral perfusion; (2) relative hypertension leading to posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome; (3) septic embolization in the case of superimposed bacterial infection; (4) stress cardiomyopathy and an attendant reduction in left ventricular ejection fraction; and (5) atrial fibrillation with or without a rapid ventricular response.
Additionally, severe COVID-19 has been associated with a hyperinflammatory state (cytokine storm9) and hyperviscosity. Progression to disseminated intravascular coagulation is more common in COVID-19 than in other forms of critical illness; one case series reported an incidence of 8.7% with associated 94% mortality.10 Mortality is associated with higher fibrin-degradation product levels and prolonged prothrombin and activated partial thromboplastin times.11 D-dimer was elevated in 36% of patients with COVID-19 in Wuhan,12 which was associated with a higher risk of mortality,13 an association suggested to be driven at least partially by increased thrombotic complications. Preliminary reports from China describe patients with COVID-19 who developed multiple, bilateral ischemic cerebral infarcts, antiphospholipid antibodies, and hematologic indices suggestive of an acquired thrombophilia.14 During the first SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, postmortem studies demonstrated a florid vasculitis in multiple arterial beds,15 and it is not known whether this disease pattern occurs with severe acute respiratory syndrome CoV-2 coronavirus infection.
Potential Therapeutic Implications
There are 2 main implications for clinical care that arise from our data. First, many institutions are currently attempting to balance the benefits of rapid, structured neurological evaluations for patients with COVID-19 exhibiting new neurological symptoms with the risks of exposing multiple team members to infection.16 As centers develop protocols for the prompt triage and assessment of patients with COVID-19, the co-occurrence of stroke and COVID-19 should be considered when weighing these risks. Second, stroke in the setting of COVID-19 could be a manifestation of systemic hypercoagulability as shown in our patient population with higher D-dimer levels when compared with contemporary controls. Further study is required whether therapeutic anticoagulation in this setting mitigates ischemic stroke risk. In fact, PROTECT COVID (A Randomized Trial of Anticoagulation Strategies in COVID-19) is an ongoing randomized clinical trial testing the safety and efficacy of therapeutic versus prophylactic anticoagulation in patients with COVID-19 infection and mild to moderate elevation in D-dimer level (URL: https://www.clinicaltrials.gov. Unique identifier: NCT04359277).
Strengths and Limitations
Our study reports the clinical characteristics of a diverse patient population with ischemic stroke in the setting of COVID-19. We report subject level data, including key clinical variables, markers of disease severity, and diagnostic workup for ischemic stroke.
Our findings should be interpreted with caution in the context of a number of important limitations. First, our study was a relatively small, retrospective, observational study with potential for selection bias. Second, we did not have outcome data on all patients as some are still admitted receiving active clinical care. Third, we do not have complete laboratory investigations or diagnostic imaging for all study subjects, and therefore, some cryptogenic strokes may be related to another undiagnosed mechanism. This likely contributed to an increased prevalence of cryptogenic stroke subtype in patients with COVID-19 infection. Fourth, our study may not be fully representative of all patients with stroke in our healthcare system; patients who are critically ill may not be diagnosed with stroke due to impaired consciousness, confounding systemic illness, or withdrawal of life-sustaining therapies. Fifth, since this report focused on ischemic stroke, we did not provide information on hemorrhagic stroke and venous sinus thrombosis occurring in patients with COVID-19. These complications in the setting of COVID-19 need further study. Finally, since not all patients were tested for COVID-19, it is possible that some asymptomatic patients with stroke may have been COVID positive but were included in the control group.
We observed a relatively low rate of imaging proven ischemic stroke in hospitalized patients with COVID-19 infection. In patients with COVID-19 and ischemic stroke, a majority of strokes were classified as cryptogenic, possibly related to an acquired hypercoagulability, and were associated with increased mortality. Ongoing studies are testing the utility of therapeutic anticoagulation for stroke and other thrombotic event prevention, in select patients with COVID-19 and laboratory evidence suggestive of hypercoagulability.
Dr Yaghi, B. Mac Grory, Dr Henninger, and Dr Frontera participated in study design and drafting the article. Dr Humbert, Dr Ishida, Dr Alam, Dr Lord, Dr Sanger, Dr Lillemoe, E. Scher, Dr Kim, Dr Raz, and Dr Tanweer participated in data abstraction and article revision. Dr Trivedi performed the statistical analysis.
Sources of Funding
This study is partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), K08NS091499 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr Henninger is supported by K08NS091499 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health and Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program/Department of Defense. Dr Henninger reports personal fees from Astrocyte Pharmaceuticals, Inc and grants from National Institute of Child Health and Human Development outside the submitted work. Dr Yaghi’s previous institution received funding from Medtronic for his effort in adjudicating outcomes for the Stroke-AF trial. Dr Dehkharghani received funding from iSchemaView. The other authors report no conflicts.
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