Public health precautions meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19 may have had an unintended but happy side effect.
They may also have benefited individuals who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a new study.
During the pandemic, admissions for COPD flare-ups dropped dramatically -- by 53% -- at University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) hospitals.
Researchers at the UM School of Medicine suspect this was the result of a drop in circulating seasonal respiratory viruses, such as influenza. They theorized that stay-at-home orders, social distancing, mask mandates and strict limits on large gatherings reduced exposure not only to COVID but also to other respiratory infections.
"Our study shows there's a silver lining to the behavior changes beyond protecting against COVID-19," said senior author Dr. Robert Reed, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine.
COPD is a group of lung diseases that worsen over time and make it hard to breathe. Before the pandemic, they were the fourth-leading cause of death worldwide, commonly triggered by tobacco smoke and dirty air. Nearly half of flare-ups are caused by seasonal respiratory viruses.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 13 UMMS hospitals, comparing weekly admissions for COPD in 2018 and 2019, with admissions after April 1, 2020, when COVID-19 public health measures were introduced. Investigators chose the same six-month period in each year for comparison -- April 1 to Sept. 30.
The findings were matched against U.S. federal data on respiratory viral trends between Jan. 1, 2018, and Oct. 1, 2020.
As significant as was the system's 53% drop in COPD admissions during the pandemic, there was also a 36% decline in weekly admissions for such serious conditions as congestive heart failure, diabetes and heart attack, said co-lead author Dr. Jennifer So. She's an assistant professor of medicine and COPD specialist.
The researchers warned that a full return to normal may again expose COPD patients to the familiar seasonal triggers.
"If we completely eliminate masks and distancing during cold and flu season, we'll allow all those viruses that have been effectively suppressed to come raging back," Reed said in a university news release. "There could be a lot of illness."
He noted that the study did not assess which measures tamed seasonal viruses. But, Reed added, "a simple thing like wearing a mask while riding on public transit or working from home when you're sick with a cold could go a long way to reduce virus exposure."
So said it is a cultural norm in her native South Korea to wear masks during the winter.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has helped a lot of people around the world become more aware of the role of masking and social distancing to reduce the spread of disease," she said in the release.
The findings were recently published in the preprint server medRxiv and have not yet been peer-reviewed.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on COVID-19 and chronic lung diseases.
SOURCE: University of Maryland School of Medicine, news release, June 14, 2021