Article Text

COVID-19 impact on consecutive neurological patients admitted to the emergency department
  1. Andrea Pilotto1,2,
  2. Alberto Benussi1,
  3. Ilenia Libri1,
  4. Stefano Masciocchi1,
  5. Loris Poli1,
  6. Enrico Premi3,
  7. Antonella Alberici1,
  8. Enrico Baldelli1,
  9. Sonia Bonacina1,
  10. Laura Brambilla4,
  11. Matteo Benini5,
  12. Salvatore Caratozzolo1,
  13. Matteo Cortinovis1,
  14. Angelo Costa3,
  15. Stefano Cotti Piccinelli1,
  16. Elisabetta Cottini1,
  17. Viviana Cristillo1,
  18. Ilenia Delrio3,
  19. Massimiliano Filosto1,
  20. Massimo Gamba3,
  21. Stefano Gazzina6,
  22. Nicola Gilberti3,
  23. Stefano Gipponi1,
  24. Marcello Giunta1,
  25. Alberto Imarisio1,
  26. Paolo Liberini1,
  27. Martina Locatelli1,
  28. Francesca Schiano1,
  29. Ranata Rao1,
  30. Barbara Risi1,
  31. Luca Rozzini1,
  32. Andrea Scalvini1,
  33. Veronica Vergani3,
  34. Irene Volonghi1,
  35. Nicola Zoppi1,
  36. Barbara Borroni1,
  37. Mauro Magoni3,
  38. Matilde Leonardi7,
  39. Gianluigi Zanusso8,
  40. Sergio Ferrari8,
  41. Sara Mariotto8,
  42. Alessandro Pezzini1,
  43. Roberto Gasparotti9,
  44. Ciro Paolillo10,
  45. Alessandro Padovani1
  1. 1 Neurology Unit, Department of Clinical and Experimental Sciences, University of Brescia, Brescia, Italy
  2. 2 Parkinson's Disease Rehabilitation Centre, FERB Onlus, Trescore Balneario, Lombardia, Italy
  3. 3 Stroke Unit, ASST Spedali Civili di Brescia, Brescia, Italy
  4. 4 Department of Neuroimmunology and Neuromuscular Diseases, Foundation IRCCS Carlo Besta Neurological Institute, Milano, Italy
  5. 5 Neurology Unit, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
  6. 6 Neurophysiology Unit, ASST Spedali Civili di Brescia, Brescia, Italy
  7. 7 Neurology, Public Health and Disability Unit, Foundation IRCCS Carlo Besta Neurological Institute, Milano, Italy
  8. 8 Department of Neuroscience, Biomedicine and Movement Sciences, University of Verona, Verona, Italy
  9. 9 Section of Neuroradiology, Department of Medical and Surgical Specialties, University of Brescia, Brescia, Italy
  10. 10 Emergency Department, ASST Spedali Civili di Brescia, Brescia, Italy
  1. Correspondence to Professor Alessandro Padovani, Department of Clinical and Experimental Sciences, University of Brescia, 25121 Brescia, Italy; alessandro.padovani{at}

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The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 hit Italy by the end of February and rapidly spread from Lombardy to the rest of the country, with a number of fatalities beyond 31 000. Although all regions have reported having patients with COVID-19, the highest number of identified cases was in the provinces of eastern Lombardy.1 Several case reports and small series also suggested an association between COVID-19 and cerebrovascular events, and immune or inflammatory-mediated peripheral and central nervous system (CNS) involvement.2 3

To date, however, no comprehensive large surveys on the impact of COVID-19 on neurological status of patients presenting at the emergency room have been published. In fact, still little is known on which are the most common acute neurological presentations in COVID-19 and whether they differ compared with patients without COVID-19 in terms of severity and outcomes.

The urgent drift to cope with the rapidly overwhelming number of simultaneously critical patients drew the conversion of the majority of neurological units into non-specialistic wards for broader and generic COVID-19 patient care. The converted units became spokes referring neurological patients to tertiary hub centres for specialty care. This led to the definition in tertiary centres of dedicated medical and nurse teams working in special neuro-COVID units in order to guarantee equal access to acute therapies.

The aim of this study was to investigate the impact of COVID-19 by recording clinical presentations, laboratory characteristics and management/outcomes of a series of neurological patients who consecutively presented at the emergency department (ED) during the peak of the epidemic. The study was carried out in a tertiary referral neurological centre, the first Italian neuro-COVID unit, identified as a hub for stroke and neurological emergencies independently from SARS-CoV-2 status, in an area of more than 1 200 000 people.1


Five hundred and five adult patients with neurological symptoms were evaluated at the ED starting from 20 February to 30 April 2020. Of these, 147 (29.1%) were found positive for SARS-CoV-2 (table 1).

Table 1

Demographic, clinical, laboratory characteristics and clinical management of neurological patients evaluated at the ED

Compared with patients without COVID-19, COVID-19-positive patients were significantly older (73.1±12.4 vs 65.1±18.9 years, p=0.001) and had a different distribution of neurological presentation (p=0.001), with a higher frequency of altered mental status or delirium (25.9% vs 10.1%) but lower frequency of seizures and headache/pain (see table 1 for details). According to final diagnosis, COVID-19-positive patients had higher prevalence of ischaemic stroke (n=51, 34.7% vs n=105, 29.3%), delirium (n=24, 16.3% vs n=18, 5.0%) and meningitis/encephalitis (n=14, 9.5% vs n=7, 1.9%) (online supplemental table 1 and online supplemental figure 1)

Supplemental material

Supplemental material

Laboratory analysis in COVID-19-positive patients showed increased serological levels of C reactive protein, aspartate and alanine aminotransferase and fibrinogen (all p<0.05, table 1).

COVID-19-positive patients showed a higher rate of hospitalisation following ED triage (91.2% vs 69.3%, p<0.0001) and in-hospital mortality (29.7% vs 3.1%, p<0.0001). In particular, mortality was higher in intracerebral haemorrhage (ICH) (COVID-19-positive 58.3% vs non-COVID-19 33.0%), in ischaemic stroke (COVID-19-positive 39.2% vs non-COVID 2.8%) and in delirium/altered mental status (COVID-19-positive 23.4% vs non-COVID 0%). In COVID-19, mortality was associated with older age and comorbidities.

According to the Modified Rankin Scale, COVID-19-positive patients had higher levels of disability at discharge compared with patients without COVID-19 (2.6 ±1.6 vs 1.6±1.4, p<0.0001), though both groups had similar baseline values (table 1).


Findings showed that about a third of neurological patients assessed at the ED were positive for SARS-CoV-2 and that these were characterised by an increased frequency of cerebrovascular events and encephalitis (online supplemental figure 1). The higher frequency of cerebrovascular events is in line with the known proinflammatory state associated with increased risk of both ischaemic stroke and ICH. In fact, in this series, neurological patients with COVID-19 showed significantly higher levels of C reactive protein and fibrinogen, strongly arguing for endothelial dysfunction or cardioembolic events as possible risk factors for cerebrovascular accidents.

Diagnosis of encephalitis was also more frequently observed in patients with COVID-19. Given the close time relationship with SARS-CoV-2 infection, a direct or inflammatory-mediated involvement of COVID-19 of the CNS has been hypothesised to be in agreement with several case descriptions.

In this series, neurological patients with COVID-19 had an unfavourable outcome as shown by increased rates of hospitalisation, high rate of mortality and higher disability at discharge. The mortality rate observed is far higher compared with general in-hospital mortality reported in COVID-19 both in China and in Western countries,4 and is higher compared with non-COVID-19 cases also adjusting for age and comorbidities. This further highlights the severe impact of COVID-19 on neurological patients, with these patients being more fragile, vulnerable and thus particularly prone to early deterioration and death independently from age and premorbid state.

This study, evaluating more than 500 patients admitted at the ED, highlighted the fact that COVID-19 infection specifically affects clinical presentations and management of neurological patients. This has deep implications for daily practice and healthcare organisation. For neurological patients severe enough to warrant hospitalisation, our experience suggests that the neuro-COVID units might represent the most suitable solution to provide urgent, standardised and tailored neurological care.5

We acknowledge that this study entails some limitations. First, due to the study design, we limited the observation to patients presenting with prominent neurological manifestations, thus probably underestimating neurological symptoms in more severe patients. Second, interpretation of findings could be limited by the single-centre design and by the redistribution of emergency network in the region, potentially leading to decreased access to healthcare systems for less severe neurological manifestations. Third, the study was descriptive in nature and does not include a detailed description of cerebrospinal fluid analyses or MRI imaging, which was not performed as standard in all patients, and perspective studies using standardised protocols are thus warranted to extend these findings.3

In conclusion, coronavirus plays a relevant impact on neurological presentations and health status, as neurological patients required more frequent hospitalisation and were at higher risk of mortality and disability at discharge. Further studies are needed to compare different models of care in order to identify the most efficacious organisation to counteract the impact of COVID-19 on neurological patients.


Supplementary materials

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  • Contributors Conception and design of the study: APi, AB and APe. Acquisition and analysis of data: APi, AB, IL, SM, LP, EP, APe, EB, SB, LB, MB, SC, MC, AC, SCP, EC, VC, ID, MF, MG, SGa, NG, SGi, MG, AI, PL, MLo, FS, RR, BR, LR, AS, VV, IV, NZ, BB, MM, MLe, GZ, SF, SM, APa, RB, CP and AP. Drafting of the manuscript and figures: APi, AB and APe.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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