Kaiawa Clarke1,2, Hanna Roopchand1, Desiree Murray1,2
1 Department of Ophthalmology, Port-of-Spain General Hospital, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
2The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
Dr. Hanna Roopchand
Department of Opthalmology
Port-of-Spain General Hospital
Trinidad and Tobago
As of October 5th, 2020, the world had recorded 36 million confirmed cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), with 237,302 of them in the Caribbean and 4,887 in Trinidad and Tobago.[1, 2] Novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) can have various presentations not in keeping with its more common respiratory natural course. An uncommon presentation which has been reported originates in the eye in the form of keratoconjunctivitis. Other presentations include myalgia, fatigue, sputum production, headache, haemoptysis, diarrhoea and loss of taste or smell.
Why is conjunctivitis or redness of the eyes an important sign during this COVID-19 pandemic?
There are several published reports which suggest that SARS-CoV-2 can cause conjunctivitis. It may present as an early sign of the infection, or during the hospitalization period of those with more severe COVID-19. A review of data from 1,099 patients across 552 hospitals in China, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported the incidence of this unusual presentation as 0.8%. Another case series reported ocular symptoms in 12 of 38 (31%) hospitalized patients in Hubei province, China. These symptoms included, hyperemia, chemosis, epiphora, or increased secretions. Of those patients with ocular manifestations, 16% tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 on reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) by conjunctival and nasopharyngeal swab.
One case report by Cheema et al out of Canada, noted a patient who presented with symptoms of keratoconjunctivitis with lymphadenopathy as the initial presentation of COVID-19. This patient was initially diagnosed and managed as adenoviral keratoconjunctivitis, but subsequently developed acute pharyngitis for which a nasopharyngeal swab was performed. Her nasopharyngeal swab was positive of SARS-CoV-2 and RT-PCR on her initial eye swab which was sent for gonococcal/chlamydial assessment was also positive for the novel coronavirus.
Inflammation of the conjunctiva is not only thought to be a potential sign of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but the conjunctiva and, more specifically, the tears, may be a potential source of infection. The virus has been isolated in eye swabs in patients confirmed positive by nasopharyngeal swab.[8,9] Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors have been found to be integral in the virulence of this coronavirus. These receptors have been found in the conjunctiva and cornea.[9,10]
Viral conjunctivitis is a common, self-limiting, relatively low-risk diagnosis among differentials of the acute red eye. However, some of the other life or sight-threatening diseases associated with acute red eye such as acute angle closure glaucoma, corneal ulceration, acute iritis or scleritis, may be missed due to the concern of spreading the coronavirus. This trend has already been noticed in other fields. For example, a significant decline in the incidence of cancer has been noted, likely due to decreased screening when compared to pre-pandemic data. In these unprecedented times, it is important to identify those patients with acute red eye who require further evaluation whether for SARS-CoV-2 or another potentially harmful condition, while minimizing exposure of health care workers.
Consider the following:
- Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a potentially life-threatening condition. According to the World Health Organization, globally there have been 1,054,868 COVID- 19 related deaths.
- Routine examination by the ophthalmologist utilizing slit lamp biomicroscopy, involves close face-to-face contact between patient and examiner (40-50cm). This places the ophthalmologist at high risk of exposure. Dr Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist, who is remembered today as a ‘whistleblower’, died of 2019-nCoV.
- Telemedicine and specifically teleophthalmology, involves the use of electronic communications and software to provide clinical services to patients without an in-person visit.
- Viral conjunctivitis (including that associated with 2019-nCoV) is self-limiting and usually runs a mild course, making it appropriate for remote consultation by telemedicine.
- Acute red eye has many differentials, some of which can result in significant morbidity if missed. Health care professionals should be confident in assessment of the acute red eye and make appropriate referrals to ophthalmology.
In light of the above considerations an assessment algorithm was formulated by doctors at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital eye clinic (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Algorithm formulated by the doctors at the Port of Spain General Hospital Eye Clinic
This algorithm highlights specific symptoms associated with the acute red eye, which may indicate a high probability of a sight or life threatening diagnosis, requiring further assessment. Those patients deemed to have uncomplicated viral conjunctivitis can be reviewed via telemedicine, while those highly suspicious for SARS-CoV-2 are also swabbed and isolated. This algorithm was reviewed by nursing staff and the Port of Spain General Hospital Accident & Emergency Department physicians to obtain feedback and found to be easy to follow.
In conclusion, the acute red eye is a common condition. Not all patients presenting with red eye will have conjunctivitis. However, for those who do have conjunctivitis, SARS-CoV-2 must be a serious consideration. The ophthalmologist may not be the first health care professional evaluating such a patient. The Port of Spain General Hospital Eye Clinic’s acute red eye assessment algorithm may be a valuable tool in diagnosis and management, in a primary care or accident and emergency setting. Our algorithm provides a safe process for both patient and health care professional.
Ethical Approval statement: Not applicable
Funding statement: None
Author Contributions: Each author has made a substantial contribution to the conception of this article and to data collection, analysis and interpretation, has been involved in drafting and revising the manuscript and has given final approval for submission.
- Caribbean Public Health Agency. CARPHA Situation Report no.99 October 8,2020: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic. 2020.
- Trinidad and Tobago Country Overview | World Health Organization [Internet]. Who.int. 2020 [cited 9 October 2020]. Available from: https://www.who.int/countries/tto/
- Güemes-Villahoz N, Burgos-Blasco B, García-Feijoó J, Sáenz-Francés F, Arriola-Villalobos P, Martinez-de-la-Casa J et al. Conjunctivitis in COVID-19 patients: frequency and clinical presentation. Graefe’s Archive for Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology. 2020;.
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- Zhou P, Yang X, Wang X, Hu B, Zhang L, Zhang W et al. A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature. 2020;579(7798):270-273.
- Sungnak W, Huang N, Bécavin C, Berg M, Queen R, Litvinukova M et al. SARS-CoV-2 entry factors are highly expressed in nasal epithelial cells together with innate immune genes. Nature Medicine. 2020;26(5):681-687.
- Kaufman H, Chen Z, Niles J, Fesko Y. Changes in the Number of US Patients With Newly Identified Cancer Before and During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic. JAMA Network Open. 2020;3(8):e2017267.
- Gao Hua, Shi Weiyun. Discussion on ophthalmological research and prevention and control of new coronavirus from the ocular manifestations of viral diseases[J/OL]. Chinese Journal of Ophthalmology, 2020, 56 (2020-02-24).http:/ /rs.yiigle.com/yufabiao/1182659.htm. DOI: 10.3760/cma.j.cn112142-20200216-00068.