Unprecedented times

For many, life has changed beyond all recognition in the short space of just a few weeks. On the 9th of March we published an extraordinary #TheAnaesthesiaBlog from Tim Cook and Kariem El-Boghdadly calling for all to plan and act. It generated more than 50k reads and we hope it disseminated important messages about the looming crisis for healthcare, and society more generally. The follow-up Australian perspective from Tanya Selak was again ahead of the curve and helped raise awareness of what was to come.

In these unprecedented times, the need for fast, reliable, fact-checked knowledge and recommendations is insatiable. Thankfully, there now exists one portal through which anyone can access a range of COVID-19 resources, including: updates on the current situation; clinical guidance; national guidance; and patient information. Medical journals also have a key role to play and we wish to update you briefly on our response and what we can offer readers, authors, reviewers and patients in these unprecedented times.

We continue to deal with all previously submitted papers, which will undergo all our usual processes. We remain open to submissions on any topic related to peri-operative medicine, critical care, pain medicine and all other associated topics. All original articles, reviews and correspondence in relation to COVID-19 will undergo rapid peer review and if accepted, rapid publication on early view. We have already accepted several papers from the UK and elsewhere and as soon as these are available, they will be freely available and tweeted from the journal account. Finally, continuing professional development remains important at this difficult time and we believe it must continue. We hope to provide you with a range of high-quality educational content on COVID-19 and other topics.

We will keep you updated as the situation evolves. But please rest assured that we are doing everything we can to support our readers and authors through this challenging time. Please look after each other and yourselves.

Mike Charlesworth and Andrew Klein

COVID-19: the view from Australia

Australia had its first case of coronavirus on January 25th, and as of today there are 376 confirmed cases with many test results pending. Cases are doubling every three days, with modelling predicting 153,000 cases by EasterAustralian case numbers more closely align with the experience in Europe, rather than the slower case doubling time in Korea and Singapore. I work in Wollongong, a town south of Sydney in New South Wales with a population of 400,000. If conservative models are correct and 20% become infected, with 5% requiring critical care, this equates to 4000 patients, which is in addition to the usual caseload. We have around 20 critical care beds. 

Until recently, health care professionals and the general public have been largely indifferent to the disease. This is despite widely reported experiences in China, Korea, Iran and Italy, with exhausted frontline clinicians imploring us to prepare. Many felt that this disease was ‘just a mild cold’ and that although there were many deaths, these were limited to the frail, elderly and those with medical comorbidities. There was full confidence that the Australian medical system could manage the disease, as it has world-class people and resources. Most seemed to think that this would not impact us. Many were still laughing at toilet paper jokes and coronavirus memes. Some still are. 

The mood is rapidly changed. There are increasing numbers of clinicians, medical administrators, politicians and members of the community becoming fearful and frantic. Clinicians in particular have been motivated into action following the Italian reports of overwhelming numbers of critically ill patients and deaths. The exponential growth in case numbers and the subsequent social distancing measures introduced by the Australian government yesterday have also increased the impact of the disease. Legislation will enforce the banning of organised mass gatherings of over 500 people, and self-isolation for all travellers from all countries for 14 days, echoing New Zealand’s move to this the day prior. New Zealand has fewer cases yet has been more proactive. Perhaps the recent White Island Volcano tragedy has made them less willing to become overwhelmed again. Awareness was also raised by Hollywood stars Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who tested positive and were admitted to Gold Coast University Hospital last week. The government has announced a multi-billion-dollar stimulus package to address the widespread economic devastation the disease will cause. 

The looming disaster is slowly dawning on regulators, administrators and community members. Most Australian hospitals have been slow to act and are only now beginning to look seriously at the logistics of the likely tsunami of potential patients.

Testing

Practical difficulties in accessing COVID-19 testing for the public and healthcare workers have led to many frustrations. Some wait up to five days to get tested, and streamlined testing clinics are just starting to appear. The public health advice around testing has changed as the data comes to hand, and is currently limited to those with symptoms and a contact or relevant travel history. 

Personal protective equipment

From my own Twitter activity, I noticed and wondered why international colleagues were shaving beards. This led me to discover the much more serious approach to PPE adopted in other countries, particularly those who have experienced respiratory outbreaks before such as Canada. Formal fit-testing of N95 masks is not mandated in most of Australia and New Zealand. Very few have ever heard of fit-testing, let alone formally had it done. I suspect that Australian guidelines for PPE when we are post-COVID will reflect the more pro-active approach adopted by countries who have been here before. 

There have been concerns around the ability of institutions to supply sufficient PPE. Although state and federal governments have announced funding for PPE, individual hospitals have not completed stocktakes of equipment. Most do not know how many COVID and other emergency patients they can care for. Few have received training, although this is now starting in earnest for some, with others told that there is insufficient gear to rehearse. Although a few units have conducted simulations, they are in the minority. There are a number of different management guidelines and few institutions have agreed on approaches between departments. 

Elective surgery

The management of patients requiring elective surgery is becoming increasingly topical. Elective surgery targets are highly politically driven and direct activity in hospital, sometimes at the expense of emergency surgery. It has been very difficult to shift this mindset. In fact, the state of Victoria has announced an ‘elective surgery blitz’ prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 peak. This is difficult to understand in view of the lack of preparedness and the anticipated patient numbers with the impending healthcare crisis. The Australian Society of Anaesthetists has recommended postponement of elective surgery in order to allow preparation time, as have the Royal Australian and New Zealand college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The Royal Australian College of Surgeons have called for surgical fellows to ‘follow local hospital requirements’ around elective surgery and ANZCA is yet to comment specifically on the matter. 

Organised meetings 

Over the last week, medical conference organisers have one by one made difficult but necessary decisions to cancel their events, including the largest anaesthesia event of the year, the ANZCA annual scientific meeting in Perth. Smaller hospital meetings continue, although some clinicians have cancelled. The medical viva part of the ANZCA final exam was cancelled last weekend, and there are concerns about education implications of the crisis for fellows and trainees with diversion of work and cancellation of CPD activities. 

Community

Many individuals have cancelled overseas trips for the upcoming school holidays and Easter. Some clinicians are now stranded at home in self-isolation requiring the cancellation or rescheduling of clinical work. Panic buying continues with difficulty accessing toilet paper, hand sanitisers, pasta, and meat. A supermarket chain has introduced an early morning quarantine shopping time for the elderly and vulnerable to protect them from the masses. 

Although some schools who have had members test positive for the disease have closed briefly, schools have largely remained open. The rationale for this from public health is that it may do more harm than good. School closures may cause children to be cared for by their grandparents, who are vulnerable to the disease, or parents who are healthcare workers and other essential services and may be unable to present for work if children are at home. 

Information flow  

Key clinicians have been employing social media channels to advocate for governmental action. There are a number of private groups also which are sharing information and getting organised. It has been difficult to keep up with official advice from state and federal government, the hospitals, professional societies, my children’s schools and co-curricular activity providers, my private and public social media. Information overload has been particularly difficult with the rapidly changing nature of this epidemic and the ever-increasing need for information. 

Pleasingly, there has been the rapid production of a number of excellent educational resources from those who have experienced previous epidemics, and those who are currently in the thick of it. Resources have been shared widely and freely on public and private social media sites. This crisis has demonstrated the value of social media where healthcare workers across the world have generously supported each other with information, advice and moral support in real-time.

I repeat and reinforce the advice of Prof Tim Cook and Dr Kariem El-Boghdadly for healthcare workers to familiarise themselves with their institutional PPE policies, practice and train for the management of COVID-19 patients, and agree robust local procedures for the pandemic. I also implore institutions to increase preparedness by postponing non-essential elective surgery, arrange training in COVID management, release all non-essential staff to protect their health and assemble groups of multidisciplinary leaders to organise and lead institutions. We must work together. We have no time left. 

Dr Tanya Selak

Senior Consultant Anaesthetist, Wollongong Hospital, Wollongong, NSW, Australia

International Advisory Panel member, Anaesthesia

The UK COVID-19 epidemic: time to plan and time to act

“The critical feature of all pandemics is uncertainty”

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) literally needs no introduction. It arrived in China as an unwelcome New Year’s Eve present and although it may have taken a few weeks for many to become aware of it, it has become an ever-present in our lives since. It is, as we write, creating an epidemic across the world and is now sweeping across Europe. It is impacting everyday life in many ways and this impact is likely to become much more marked in the coming months.

Novel coronavirus

The single-strand RNA virus was named novel coronavirus 2019 (2019-nCoV), but due to its pulmonary consequences has been renamed as severe acute respiratory syndrome corona virus type 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It arises from mutation of a virus an animal reservoir, and origins from laboratory sources has been ruled out. It is related to the common cold virus and that causing severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and middle east respiratory syndrome (MERS). Vaccines against these viruses are complex to develop, as illustrated by the fact we currently have no vaccine against the cold, SARS or MERS. The disease caused by SARs-CoV-2 is termed corona virus disease-19 (COVID-19) because the World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of the localised surge in cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China on 31 December 2019. 

The numbers

The world’s understanding of the disease owes much to massive international collaboration between scientists but most to the efforts of the Chinese clinicians and researchers collecting and making available data on the disease right from the start. The fundamental metrics as we currently understand them are shown in Table 1. As usual the numbers need to be well understood to tell the story.

R02–3 people
Ascertainment rate10–25%
Attack rate30–60%
Hospitalisation12%
Symptoms
        Mild80%
        Severe15%
        Critical2–10%
Mortality3.5%
IncubationUp to 14 days
Most infective time1–14 days
Table 1 Current metrics on COVID-19 (up to date as of 08/03/2020).

The R0 describes the number of patients that a single patient will infect, in an uncontrolled setting. In the early stages of the epidemic it is believed that this figure may have been much higher, and R0s tend to reduce during the evolution of an epidemic. Control measures such as isolation and quarantine reduce R0. If these measures are effective, R0 may be reduced to below 1 and if this is sustained the epidemic will eventually wane and stop. As long as the R0 is >1, the epidemic will continue and there will be a geometric rise in cases. The impact of R0 is important. Influenza has an R0 of approximately 1.3: after 10 infective cycles this would lead to 14 infected patients from a single source. For SARS-CoV-2 after 10 infective cycles 59,000 patients would be infected. By comparison Ebola has an R0 of around 2, SARS of approximately 3 and MERS ranged from 1 to 5.7 until finally it reduced to <1. 

Combined with this high R0 is a high virulence, so while many cases cause mild disease the mortality rate is many fold higher than that of even pandemic influenza. Various figures for mortality have been quoted, but each is dependent on the numerator and denominator chosen. Of the first 100,000 confirmed cases approximately 3,400 died: thus, the case fatality rate (CFR) is 3.4%. However, it is likely that many cases, mostly because they cause asymptomatic or mild symptoms, are not detected. If this ‘ascertainment rate’ is only 10% this means 90% of cases are missed and the infected mortality risk (IFR) is 0.34%. But these figures only consider those who are infected, and the burden of disease in the population is also dependent on the proportion of the population who are infected (attack rate): many estimates are around 30%, but some as high as 60% or even 80%. If the attack rate is 30% and the IFR 0.34% the overall mortality rate would be close to 0.1% (1 in 1000 of the population). Lead-time bias (the fact that many patients will undergo several weeks of treatment before dying) complicates factors further and currently means that the initial 3.4% CFR is likely to be an underestimate.

However, illness and mortality are not spread evenly across the population. A remarkable epidemiological report from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control (CDC), published only a few days after data collection finished reported differential mortality rates by sex, age, comorbidity. 

Baseline characteristicsConfirmed cases; n (%)Deaths; n (%)Case fatality rate, %
Overall44,6721,0232.3%
Age, years
 0–9416 (0.9%)
 10–19549 (1.2%)1 (0.1%)0.2%
 20–293,619 (8.1%)7 (0.7%)0.2%
 30–397,600 (17.0%)18 (1.8%)0.2%
 40–498,571 (19.2%)38 (3.7%)0.4%
 50–5910,008 (22.4%)130 (12.7%)1.3%
 60–698,583 (19.2%)309 (30.2%)3.6%
 70–793,918 (8.8%)312 (30.5%)8.0%
 ≥801,408 (3.2%)208 (20.3%)14.8%
Sex
 Male22,981 (51.4%)653 (63.8%)2.8%
 Female21,691 (48.6%)370 (36.2%)1.7%
Comorbid condition
 Hypertension2,683 (12.8%)161 (39.7%)6.0%
 Diabetes1,102 (5.3%)80 (19.7%)7.3%
 Cardiovascular disease873 (4.2%)92 (22.7%)10.5%
 Chronic respiratory disease511 (2.4%)32 (7.9%)6.3%
 Cancer (any)107 (0.5%)6 (1.5%)5.6%
 None15,536 (74.0%)133 (32.8%)0.9%
 Missing23,690 (53.0%)617 (60.3%)2.6%
Case severity§
 Mild36,160 (80.9%)
 Severe6,168 (13.8%)
 Critical2,087 (4.7%)1,023 (100%)49.0%
 Missing257 (0.6%)
Period (by date of onset)
 Before Dec 31, 2019104 (0.2%)15 (1.5%)14.4%
 Jan 1–10, 2020653 (1.5%)102 (10.0%)15.6%
 Jan 11–20, 20205,417 (12.1%)310 (30.3%)5.7%
 Jan 21–31, 202026,468 (59.2%)494 (48.3%)1.9%
 After Feb 1, 202012,030 (26.9%)102 (10.0%)0.8%
Table 2 Patients, deaths, and case fatality rates, as well as observed time and mortality for n=44,672 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Mainland China as of February 11, 2020. Modified from http://weekly.chinacdc.cn/news/TrackingtheEpidemic.htm.

Mortality is higher in males and particularly in those aged over 70 and with cardiovascular disease. This is most notably a disease that kills the elderly: patients aged over 70 represented fewer than 1 in 8 of those infected, but more than half of those who died. Deaths in those under 40 years-of-age account for < 3%. Early evidence outside of China is not reassuring and epidemiological patterns and mortality rates seem to be broadly in line with those from China.

Figure 1 The pyramid of mortalities

The disease

The main feature of severe COVID-19 disease is a viral pneumonia. This presents as fever, cough and dyspnoea progressing to hypoxaemia and respiratory failure and ARDS. Importantly it often presents at least a week after symptoms start. Cardiovascular co-morbidity as a risk for mortality and evidence of hypertroponinaemia, myocarditis and sudden cardiovascular death are notable but incompletely characterised. Acute kidney injury affects up to a third of patients. 

Approximately 1 in 12 patients identified with the disease are hospitalised and 1 in 6 of these are critically ill. Of the critically ill approximately half require mechanical ventilation with more than half of these patients dying in most series.

What about the UK?

It is likely the epidemic will provide a daunting challenge to healthcare services for a period of approximately three months, a period we are just entering and which is likely to last until at least the end of May. The Chief Medical Officer estimates that 95% of cases will emerge over an 9-week period and 50% of cases in a 3-week period

The UK’s critical care capacity, which is one of the lowest in Europemay need to be expanded at many-fold during this surge in demand. This will seriously challenge provision of the 4-Ss of surge capacity in critical care: space; staff; systems; and stuff (equipment). Expansion of critical care capacity requires planning on a massive scale. Critical care provision for COVID-19 patients will likely displace all elective surgical work as critical care units are expanded in many hospitals into operating theatres and anaesthetists and theatre staff become the first staff to augment the insufficient numbers of critical care staff. Emergency surgery will still be required as will provision of critical care for non-COVID-19 illnesses.

Central to care of these patients is staff safety. In the early stages, patients will need to be isolated from other patients and as the epidemic progresses, they will need to be cohorted away from non-infected patients. Staff protection will require a system that includes, but is not restricted to, strict use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Donning and doffing PPE, using a buddy system to ensure this is optimised and engaging in low patient contact methods will need to become second nature for all healthcare workers. Anaesthetists and intensivists are highly invested in this topic because airway management, including tracheal intubation, is associated with some of the highest risks of transmission of infection. PPE is likely to be effective, so too are simple methods of decontamination of surfaces, equipment and ourselves with soap and alcohol-based cleaning processes.

PPE is an emotive and important subject. In China, healthcare workers experienced high rates of infection in the early period of the epidemic, when PPE use may not have been optimal. Over time this rate of infection has reduced but it remains significant, and there is soft evidence from both China and Italy that healthcare workers who are infected have a higher rate of severe and critical illness than the normal population, plausibly because of exposure to a higher viral load. There are likely to be limited PPE stocks and appropriate use of it is essential to maintain stocks throughout the epidemic. 

What can we do?

If not already done, it is time to plan and time to act. Every hospital needs to plan its response to admission of its first patients with COVID-19 (phase 1 and 2), its first critically ill patient, and cohort of patients (phase 3). There is a pressing need for anaesthetists and intensivists to talk to each other, join forces and work together to organise and test the best response they are able. Collaboration in planning and delivery of critical care services in the predicted epidemic offers the greatest chance of weathering the storm. Given that the UK has half of the critical care beds per 100,000 capita of population than in Italy who have branched into the operating theatres already, there is a clear risk that our current resources will not suffice [8]. There will also be great strain on PPE supplies and medical, nursing and other workforces.

Hope

The numbers do however provide some hope. The spread of the disease beyond Hubei province in China is wide geographically but the number of cases and deaths is rapidly diminishing. The considerable efforts made by the Chinese government and people to control the epidemic appear to have worked and R0 is now less than 1. On 8th March there were no new cases reported in China outside Hubei. Drug trials are underway and will be reported soon, there may be therapies that reduce the severity of illness or help manage critically ill patients. 

In the meantime, it is going to be a very difficult period for frontline clinicians and all those we work with. Information and guidance changes often and rapidly. For anaesthetists and intensivists in the UK, a central source of information is likely to be a joint hub page run by all the key organisations who have joined together at this time for simplicity and clarity.

We encourage all readers to take stock at this time, get fit mask tests as a priority, familiarise themselves with their institutional PPE policies, practice and train for the management of COVID-19 patients, and agree robust local procedures for the likely epidemic to come.

Association of Anaesthetists members can also register for this free webinar update which takes place on the 14th of March from 0900-1100.

Professor Tim Cook and Dr Kariem El-Boghdadly

Regional anaesthesia for all

There has been recently an explosion of new regional anaesthesia techniques that seem to promise better outcomes for patients undergoing surgery. That said, most anaesthetists will probably never perform a PECS, QLB, BD-TAP, ACB, RLB, RISS, PENG, MICB or TQL block, to name but a few. Fear not, this excellent new editorial from Turbitt, Mariano and El-Boghdadly aims to recalibrate current practice and lists a limited selection of high value, basic blocks. You can hear more about this extremely popular paper, including why the authors wrote it and what they have planned for the future, in the next #TheAnaesthesiaPodcast on the 16th of March. For now, readers might also be interested in this systematic review, meta-analysis and trial sequential analysis of the posterior suprascapular block in shoulder surgery and this meta-analysis of local anaesthetic delivery regimens for peripheral nerve catheters.

This new rapid sequence intubation survey from Zdravkovic et al. is impressive work for several reasons (Fig. 1). Firstly, they recruited over 10,000 anaesthetists from across the world using platforms such as LinkedIn. Secondly, they compared responses with the opinions of recognised international airway management experts. Finally, their results have consequences for clinical practice and a wide range of future research priorities. Will we ever achieve consensus for an area of practice with such wide variations and controversy? Charlesworth and El-Boghdadly argue such aims might be outdated, and the old questions about thiopentone vs. propofol, suxamethonium vs. rocuronium and opioid vs. no opioid are no longer relevant. Perhaps the new PUMA guidelines, expected later this year, will add some much-needed clarity. For now, readers might also be interested in this new multidisciplinary consensus statement on fasting before procedural sedation in adults and children, which we discussed recently in the #NotSoFast TweetChat

Figure 1 Preferences for rapid sequence intubation from respondents from high‐income countries (filled circles), upper middle‐income (diamond), lower middle‐income (triangle) and low‐income (empty circles). The upper three panels (a) are for a hypothetical patient with intestinal obstruction. The lower three panels (b) are for any other rapid sequence intubation indication.

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is common, with most cases in the peri-operative setting presenting without a formal diagnosis. This new prospective trial from Christensson et al. suggests that partial neuromuscular blockade in patients with OSA inhibits hypoxic ventilatory response, which is restored through full recovery from paralysis. The physiology behind this study and the methods used to investigate the hypothesis are simply fascinating! Thankfully, Raju and Pandit are at hand to explain all this along with the associated clinical context (Fig. 2). 

Figure 2 Schematic for oxygen sensing at type‐1 glomus cell of carotid body. (1) Hypoxia closes background K+ (TASK) channels, which normally permit background leak of K+ outside the cell; K+ is thus retained in the cell, causing depolarisation. (2) Depolarisation opens voltage‐gated Ca2+ channels, leading to Ca2+ influx. (3) This causes fusion of vesicles containing neurotransmitters (NT) with the cell membrane and acetylcholine (ACh; the likely clinically‐relevant neurotransmitter) is released into the synaptic cleft. (4) ACh binds to specific nicotinic receptors (nAChR) causing action potentials in the afferent glossopharyngeal neve, which travel to the respiratory centre. Volatile anaesthetics block the oxygen sensing by TASK channels at step (1). Propofol inhibits glomus cell response by an as yet undefined mechanism (possibly inhibiting voltage‐gated Ca2+ channels at (2); see reference 14). Neuromuscular blockade prevents binding of ACh at nAChR at (4).

Gastric ultrasound is becoming increasingly popular in the peri-operative setting, but it might also have a role in the critical care unit. This new prospective multicentre cohort study from Bouvet et al. suggests that gastric suctioning in mechanically ventilated patients is not a reliable tool for monitoring residual gastric volume. The question is, can gastric ultrasound be used in this setting to reduce the risk of regurgitation, vomiting and ventilator-associated pneumonia? Last year, we were delighted to publish our international consensus statement on the use of uterotonic agents during caesarean section. This highlighted the potential for a reduced dose of carbetocin of < 100 μg for low-risk women. This month, Drew et al. find that the ED90 for carbetocin in obese women with a BMI ≥ 40 kg.m-2 is less than this, and even less still for women with a BMI < 40 kg-2 (Figure 3). Their methods are an excellent example of how a dose-finding study can be conducted using a biased coin up-and-down sequential randomised allocation scheme.

Figure 3 Sequence of doses administered and subsequent response. Success – filled circle; failure – open circle.

Elsewhere we have a study of the Quantra® point‐of‐care haemostasis analyser during urgent cardiac surgeryan observational study of the effects of tracheal intubation and tracheal tube position on regional lung ventilationa study of the discrimination of quick Paediatric Early Warning Scores in the pre‐hospital setting; and a retrospective study of short‐term safety and effectiveness of sugammadex for surgical patients with end‐stage renal disease

Finally, we are delighted to announce that Anaesthesia Reports is now indexed on the PubMed database! Anaesthesia Reports represents the next generation of peer-reviewed journals that accepts case reports, videos, images and educational articles from authors anywhere in the world. Regardless of author background or subject area, it offers a cutting-edge platform for authors, readers and patients. PubMed listing is a major step forward, as it reflects the quality, legitimacy and scientific value of the journal. You can catch up with the most recent issue by reading this excellent summary from the editorial team.

#ReportsComeOfAge!

Mike Charlesworth and Andrew Klein