a medical practicioner's gloved hands putting a swab into a vile in front of a masked patient

Common Steroids Potentially Reduce COVID-19 Deaths

Studies Show Improvement for Critically Ill Patients

As reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in early September, the use of three common corticosteroid drugs reduced deaths by up to 30 percent for those seriously ill with COVID-19. The use of corticosteroids – anti-inflammatory drugs that reduce the effects of an overactive immune system when reacting to a disease – could be life-changing for those suffering from COVID-19. We sat down with Jennifer Frank, MD, Chief Medical Officer of the ThedaCare Clinically Integrated Network to learn more about this innovative treatment option.

What were the findings?

The World Health Organization (WHO) coordinated the analysis of seven independent studies that took place in Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Spain, and the United States between February and June of this year. The studies involved more than 1,700 critically ill patients who were hospitalized in intensive care units and supported by ventilators or receiving other oxygen support.

“This is very encouraging news,” said Dr. Frank. “The novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, commonly known as COVID-19, is a challenging disease to treat because it is so different from other coronaviruses. This is an important step in the treatment of COVID-19 and highlights the benefits of the worldwide healthcare community working together. It offers hope for the continuing discovery of more treatment options.”

Who should receive this treatment?

The findings led the WHO, in early September, to recommend corticosteroids for the treatment of patients with severe and critical COVID-19 disease, but not for non-severe cases. The WHO cautioned that giving steroids to those with moderate or mild cases of COVID-19 might dampen the immune system of those patients and allow the virus to increase its activity within their bodies. It could also deplete the supply of available corticosteroids.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health also supports the use of corticosteroids for those on ventilators or other oxygen support because of COVID-19. Dr. Frank noted that corticosteroids do not directly attack the coronavirus, but rather prevent it from attacking the lungs, which can result in a serious and often fatal condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, which has resulted in vast numbers of COVID-19 deaths throughout the world.

What does this mean going forward?

While the discovery that corticosteroids can reduce deaths from COVID-19 is important news, these drugs do not prevent the disease.

“We have no cures for COVID-19 at this time and vaccines are still under development,” she said. “That means it is still extremely important that people continue to follow the common prevention guidelines.”

Those guidelines include:

  • Wear a mask in public.
  • Practice social distancing, remaining at least six feet away from anyone not living in your household.
  • Avoid unnecessary physical touching such as hugs, handshakes and high fives.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-percent alcohol.
  • Clean and disinfect common surfaces such as doorknobs and light switches regularly.
  • Avoid people who are sick.
  • Stay away from others if you are sick.

“The new information about steroids is not an excuse to relax from preventive behaviors,” Dr. Frank said. “COVID-19 is still a dangerous disease, and it is imperative that we continue to follow the guidelines recommended to reduce the spread of the disease and protect those who are most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill. Until there are reliable vaccines, these guidelines will need to be followed.”