GREENSBORO — Since Aug. 16, at least six people have been admitted to Cone Health facilities with a severe lung illness associated with electronic-cigarette use, also known as vaping, hospital officials said Tuesday.
Although all of them have recovered, Dr. Murali Ramaswamy said that the illness is life-threatening and that one of the patients was put on life support.
In nearly all of the cases, patients told their physicians they had used THC — the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s mind-altering effects — in the vaping devices, said Ramaswamy, who is the director of the Interstitial Lung Disease Program for LeBauer Health Care at Cone Health.
“The current epidemic seems to be related to marijuana,” Ramaswamy said. “We don’t know if it’s something about the vaping technology itself when you add the marijuana ... or is it something in the whole supply chain in the black market of marijuana.”
It’s a scenario playing out nationwide as health officials scramble to warn people to quit using the vaping devices.
“It’s something that literally overnight went from a practice that we weren’t sure what the long-term consequences would be to something that really had short-term consequences,” said Mary Gillett, the regional tobacco prevention manager for the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services.
As of Sept. 11, 380 cases of lung illness — including six deaths — associated with the use of e-cigarette products had been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 36 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the CDC’s website. And another death confirmed Monday, that of a 40-year-old California man, is being attributed to “complications related to the use of e-cigarettes,” The Washington Post reported.
In North Carolina, 28 cases had been reported as of Sept. 11, but no deaths have been reported in the state.
Many of the patients reported using e-cigarettes containing cannabinoid products, such as THC or cannabidiol — more commonly known as CBD — a hemp-derived substance marketed as a health aid that doesn’t get users high.
Kelly Connor, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said authorities have not determined a definite link because not all of the patients are reporting the use of cannabinoid products.
For that reason, health officials are urging people to quit using all e-cigarettes.
“No specific product or brand has been identified (as causing the illness),” Connor said.
Health officials have warned that vaping products and e-cigarettes, in general, contain harmful substances, including heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and ultrafine particles that can be inhaled into the lungs.
People who are vaping shouldn’t buy e-cigarette products off the street or modify them by adding substances that aren’t intended by the manufacturer, officials said.
No infectious causes have been identified among the patients, health officials said, though symptoms are similar to pneumonia caused by bacterial or viral infections. The severity of the disease has varied among patients, with some requiring treatment in the intensive care unit and assistance to breathe.
Patients have reported such symptoms as coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever and weight loss. Symptoms can develop over a few days or several weeks.
Ramaswamy said the Guilford County patients ranged in age, with one woman in her 20s and a man in his 60s. They recovered in as little as three days to as long as three weeks.
But the illness, he said, has deadly potential.
“The death rate is only 2%, but that’s just because they got really good care and they were really lucky,” Ramaswamy said.
Health officials are especially concerned because of the popularity of vaping among teenagers. According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 27.5% of high school students and more than 5 million youth were e-cigarette users. From 2017 to 2019, e-cigarette use increased by 135% for high schoolers, the study found.