BACKGROUND: We wanted to better understand the frequency and temporal distribution of symptoms of COVID-19 in very old patients, which are currently not well defined.
METHODS: In an observational, descriptive study, we followed all patients being at three geriatric convalescence and rehabilitation units when a COVID-19 outbreak emerged in those units in March 2020. For those who developed the disease, we recorded any new symptom occurring at diagnosis, in the previous 14 and the following 21 days. A group of SARS-Cov-2-negative patients served as controls.
RESULTS: Sixty-nine of the 176 inpatients (mean age: 86 years) were infected by SARS-Cov-2 during the outbreak. At the moment of diagnosis, a majority of patients had fever (71.0%), malaise-asthenia (24.6%), or respiratory symptoms (66.7%). However, 48 patients (69.6% of all SARS-Cov-2 positive patients) also presented, usually several days before, other symptoms: (a) gastrointestinal symptoms (39.1% of all patients, median onset eight days before diagnosis, IQR -9 to +3 days); (b) neurological symptoms (30.4% of all patients, median onset five days before diagnosis, IQR -11 to -3 days), notably delirium (24.6%); and (c) other symptoms, like falls and unexplained decompensation of chronic conditions (29.0% of all patients, median onset four days before diagnosis, IQR -10 to 0). None of those symptoms were observed in similar proportion in 25 control SARS-CoV-2-negative patients, hospitalized during the same period.
CONCLUSIONS: Diarrhea, nausea-vomiting, delirium, falls, and unexplained decompensation of chronic conditions were the first symptoms of COVID-19 in a majority of older patients in this cohort, preceding typical symptoms by several days. Recognizing those early symptoms could hasten the diagnosis of COVID-19 in this population.