Dr. Natalie Azar details week on front lines treating COVID-19 patients

Dr. Natalie Azar talked about a possible coronavirus treatment and new effects of the virus on the brain, as well as detailing her time treating COVID-19 patients.
/ Source: TODAY

NBC News medical correspondent Dr. Natalie Azar has been sharing her experiences with coronavirus with TODAY. In early March, she shared her struggle to get a patient tested for COVID-19, and now she's reflecting on recent 12-hour shifts working with coronavirus patients at NYU Langone Hospital in New York City.

"One of the things that really hit home to me was just how isolated the patients are,'' she said. "What I found to be one of the most rewarding experiences was certainly to be able to provide medical care, but I feel like I was giving them something else and that was just contact with a human, albeit through all of my PPE (personal protective equipment).

"But just a little time to give them a feeling of human-to-human contact, and that for me was one of the most rewarding parts of my experience for sure."

She described facilitating phone calls between patients and their friends and family, who were prevented from being by their side due to hospital protocol.

"They're all watching news about COVID-19 (on television), and they're lying in bed with COVID-19," Azar said. "It was all very, very surreal on so many levels."

Azar also shared some updates on treatment options for patients. The experimental drug remdesivir has shown promise in treating coronavirus patients, but Azar cautioned against considering data about its effectiveness "definitive" at this point.

An analysis of remdesivir, a drug developed by Gilead Sciences Inc., was published on April 10 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The small study found that 68% of the 53 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 whose data was analyzed after being given remdesivir showed clinical improvement, including 17 of 30 patients who were receiving mechanical ventilation at the time.

"The problem with this is that there was no control group, so we really can't say do the patients improve because of the drug, or would they have improved anyway?" Azar said.

The authors of the study acknowledged that fact, writing that measuring the drug's effectiveness "will require ongoing randomized, placebo-controlled trials of remdesivir therapy."

Questions still remain about how long to administer the drug, which patients should receive it, and whether they should get it early in the progression of their symptoms or later, according to Azar.

"It's certainly good to see this, but nothing definitive," she said.

Azar also spoke about a Wall Street Journal story published on Tuesday that detailed how coronavirus can affect the brain with symptoms like seizures and hallucinations in addition to its documented effects on the respiratory system.

"You know what I've said about this disease is I feel like every few days, it throws a new curveball," Azar said. "We find out something new about it. It's not unprecedented that a virus could affect the nervous sytem."

Patients experiencing a loss of taste or smell has been documented, but more catastrophic symptoms are now being reported.

"Some of the more serious side effects or manifestations were actually stroke and seizure, so from neurologists they're saying listen if you have a patient who's presenting suddenly with these unusual symptoms, think about COVID," Azar said. "In the beginning, remember we were saying 'respiratory, respiratory.' Now we're finding out that certainly it can present in a myriad of different ways."