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Sky Lakes Physician Answers COVID-19 Questions

Community news | Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Why do some individuals test positive for COVID-19 and others do not?

Dr. Grant Niskanen, vice president of Medical Affairs at Sky Lakes Medical Center and a physician, said medical professionals are still learning the nuances of a virus linked to the bat. He spoke with Herald and News earlier this week, answering frequently asked questions about the infectious disease. Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls has hospitalized four patients for COVID-19 as of last Thursday, though none have required the use of a ventilator or intubation so far, according to Niskanen.

“We haven’t truly had severe disease here,” Niskanen said.

“I don’t think we’ve quite figured this out why some people do get sicker,” Niskanen added.

Niskanen has been a physician for 28 years and has worked directly with patients who tested positive for the virus in the Klamath Basin.

In three cases in the Klamath Basin, Niskanen said he has seen spouses who test positive and then their partner tests positive a week later. He has also seen a case of a spouse who tests positive and their partner tests negative.

Niskanen referenced studies in Italy that show 20-50% of family members can contract the virus.

“If you stay home, you still stay next to people,” he said. “If you have it, you’re going to infect the people in your house and that’s what we see happening not only here but in New York City and other parts of the world.

“If you are sick, you need to quarantine away from your family members,” Niskanen added.

“It’s about three times more contagious than the flu is what we think at this point and it does spread through families.”

Niskanen emphasized that many people can get sick from the virus, but their symptoms may vary quite a bit. There were 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Klamath County as of Thursday, and 11 recoveries.

“Because it’s new, we don’t have treatments for it and we don’t have a vaccine,” Niskanen said.

That means there’s no way to curb the spread other than through social distancing measures, according to Niskanen.

Niskanen said he has worked directly with five or six patients who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Some of them had very mild illness,” Niskanen said. “A lot of them complained of a sore throat initially, and so it can start off much like a common cold where you get a sore throat or some nasal congestion, then a cough. The primary thing about this COVID-19 is it typically gives more shortness of breath and a dry cough than the typical flu-like illness.”

Niskanen said the majority of patients who tested positive for COVID-19 that he has interacted with have had sore throats, fevers, and muscle aches.

He said that the class presentation of the virus as experienced in China was a fever that lasted more than a week and rose as high as 103 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We’ve also had people here in the positive with shortness of breath and infiltrates on their lung exam in terms of their chest exam or CTs and no fever,” Niskanen said. “There is a very wide distribution of symptoms here.”

Niskanen said COVID-19 has a predilection to attack the lungs, causing shortness of breath.

“The lungs – they’re critical,” Niskanen said. “You need them to breathe and if you start to have further problems, say an underlying lung disease … then that can be deadly.”

“It does hit people very differently,” Niskanen added.

“Who gets infected and who doesn’t – we don’t know for sure. There could be a difference in people’s lungs.”

The novel coronavirus came from bats, Niskanen said. Other forms of coronavirus have come from camels.

“They worked their way across into humans at some point and became infectious,” Niskanen said.

“Humans have never had this and that’s one of the problems with this virus … We’ve all been exposed to viruses our entire life and we’ve developed very intricate and very effective treatments within our own system in terms of our immune response to viruses. The problem with this virus is our immune system has never seen this virus so it doesn’t recognize it, doesn’t quite know how to attack it, and so that’s why so many people are getting sick from it.”

Niskanen said the virus seems to infect individuals across a variety of age ranges but that it can pose even more risk to those who are older, and especially men over the age of 60 who smoke or have upper respiratory issues.

hdillemuth@heraldandnews.com; @HollyDillemuth