Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Coronavirus social distancing may be having the unintended side effect of reducing asthma flare-ups among Philly kids

That’s according to Dr. Joe Zorc, an attending physician at CHOP’s emergency department whose areas of expertise include asthma and bronchitis. This time of year usually proves especially challenging for children with asthma, he told Billy Penn, but CHOP is seeing many fewer cases.

“I would be expecting to see a lot of kids from asthma and we aren’t seeing them now,” Zorc said. It’s a situation he’s never seen before in more than 20 years in the field.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that attacks the lungs. Asthma is a chronic condition that also affects the lungs. “You would assume that there would be a relationship,” Zorc said, but studies have not yet shown a strong correlation. Even doctors in Philly, usually the fourth worst city in the nation for people with asthma, aren’t seeing more patients affected by COVID.

Asthma attacks during late winter/early spring are often triggered by the common cold. Kids often pick up colds from other children, so the anecdotal slowdown could be because of quarantine measures.

“That’s because they’re probably home from school,” Zorc said about the drop. “It definitely shows social distancing works.”

Dr. Marc Goldstein of The Asthma Center in Philadelphia said he hasn’t seen a change in the volume of asthma patients at his private practice. It’s spring allergy season, Goldstein said, which is a rough time for sufferers.

“I don’t think there’s a decrease of people experiencing asthma right now,” said Goldstein, who treats both child and adult patients. “I think people are reluctant to go to the hospital, go to the emergency room, because they have a greater risk in picking up COVID.”

Zorc, though, said he doesn’t think the decrease is attributable just people avoiding hospitals in general.

“We aren’t seeing kids who have waited too long at home coming in severe distress from asthma,” he said, “so I don’t think that this drop is due to avoiding care.”

Asthma drugs still available in Philly

The national shortage of albuterol, an inhaler used to treat asthma, doesn’t seem to have hit the Philly region yet. Some patients and five city pharmacies reached by Billy Penn said they haven’t had issues obtaining the drug.

That was true for Philly resident David Masur, director of local nonprofit PennEnvironment, who shares his asthma diagnosis with his young son, Owen.

He and his wife bought one extra refill’s worth of Owen’s regular treatments, including albuterol, and instituted strict social distancing and stay-at-home measures. So far, he said, there haven’t been any issues.

Masur isn’t sure whether to credit the lack of flare-ups to staying home from Southwark Elementary, where Owen is a 4th grader.

His son’s asthma is triggered by a bunch of things from dust to dry winter air to laughing fits. “It’s always been a little hard to predict,” Masur said.

Study: Asthma not a top COVID-19 risk factor

A report recently published by New York State, which is considered the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, reveals asthma doesn’t even crack the top 10 COVID-19 risk factors.

The study looks at the preexisting conditions that were most prevalent among COVID-19 fatalities. More than half the patients who died in New York state also had either hypertension or diabetes, the report reveals.

Only 1 of 6 individuals younger than 20 who died from COVID-19 had one of the top 10 comorbidities.

Referencing this research, the Asthma Center’s Goldstein noted that children with COVID-19 continue to handle the virus well. “As it turns out,” he said, “asthma does not for children or adults seem to be a major risk factor for having complications from COVID or dying from COVID.”

CHOP’s anecdotal evidence echoed that found by the study.

“From colleagues in New York, it doesn’t seem like coronavirus has caused a lot of severe asthma in those patients,” said Dr. Zorc, “so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...