WINNIPEG -- New research is showing that, in a small number of cases, the first symptom of COVID-19 can be a stroke.

Neil Funk-Unrau, 66, was in a coma for three weeks with COVID-19. While in the coma he suffered several strokes.

“This is something the doctors discovered through MRIs and tests,” he said.

“Once I had started to function again, there was evidence that there had been some strokes on both sides of the brain.”

A new study published in the journal ‘Neurology’ looked at 160 patients. It showed in some cases the first symptom of COVID-19 can be a stroke.

“When we see patients with stroke, the first thing that we need to keep in mind is that they are at very high risk of having COVID-19,” said Dr. Luciano Sposato, a Western University researcher.

The research shows this can also happen in patients under 50 years old.

“They're totally healthy people who develop COVID-19 and they've got strokes,” he said. “That was quite surprising."

Winnipeg hematologist Dr. Ryan Zarychanski is leading a global study on the blood thinner heparin in COVID-19 patients, which may help with stroke and blood clots.

He said based on his data, the incidence of stroke being the first symptom is likely low.

“Most of the strokes that are seen are likely in older people with comorbidities who are severely ill,” Zarychanski said.

Funk-Unrau, whose first symptom was a fever, said emerging information on COVID-19 and strokes is another good reason to be careful about getting the virus.

“I know of other people who have had strokes and they weren’t aware that they had it until they suffered from it,” he said.

In Manitoba, there haven’t been any COVID-19 cases where a stroke has been the initial symptom.

A Shared Health spokesperson said there is no record of any cases meeting this criteria and that neurologists are reviewing the evidence and will make recommendations to change Manitoba’s protocol if they believe it’s necessary.

The most common signs of a stroke are the drooping of the face, the inability to raise both arms and slurred speech. Other symptoms include double vision, sudden and severe headaches and trouble balancing.

Anyone exhibiting these symptoms should call 911 immediately.